Universities around the world are embracing the concept of therapy dogs and acknowledging the benefits that they can bring to their students.
The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology is one example of an educational institution that has sought to explore the benefits of holding sessions where students can interact with therapy dogs.
They started their therapy dog program in student halls in 2019 before it’s success led to the permanent implementation of regular mingling sessions for students.
HKUST have seen a surge in demand for these mingling sessions as students attest to feeling happier and more relaxed after meeting and interacting with the therapy dogs.
We spoke to the Dean of Students Office at the Hong Kong University Of Science And Technology to learn more.
1) How did the idea of therapy dogs first come about at HKUST?
The Dean of Students’ Office (DSTO) is dedicated to supporting students’ holistic personal development through a variety of programs and services. We always strive to balance students’ life alongside their academic studies. We believe dogs are a human’s best friend and the emotional support from dogs is different than those from people. Students just need to pet and cuddle a dog sometimes – and they may even just need a companion instead of really going to Counseling Center to talk to someone. A lot of students from overseas as well as local students told us that they miss their pets at home [while at university]. Therefore, we had this initial idea to start a therapy dog program. With the support by DST and some very passionate residence masters, we piloted the therapy dog program in student halls since June 2019, and have now expanded to regular offerings.
2) How many therapy dogs do HKUST currently have?
Two certified therapy dogs and two therapy dog trainees.
3) What is involved in the average therapy dog session at HKUST (before COVID)?
In our mingling session, the handler introduces basic information (i.e. their name and age, what they like to eat and do at home…) of the therapy dog to the students and lets the therapy dog smell and say hello to everyone. Students also get a chance to interact with other students by introducing themselves and what prompted them to join the session. Then handler will then allow students to pet and play with the therapy dog one by one. During the session, the handler will teach students how to perform tricks with therapy dog while staff have a causal chat with other students to help them destress and get to know the students more.
4) How did the students react to their therapy dog sessions (before COVID)?
A survey was completed every time after a student joined a session. Most students felt happy, relaxed, great, awesome and loved after their therapy dog sessions. 100% of the students who filled out the survey felt supported by the dog and the handler. The responses were all positive so much so that they would like to participate in future sessions and would love to recommend this program to others. The word cloud below highlighted how the students reacted after they joined a therapy dog session.
5) What are the benefits of dog therapy sessions to students? Did you see any unexpected benefits?
The benefits of dog therapy sessions are far beyond our expectations. At first, we just wanted to bring a smile and sense of calmness to students dealing with stress, anxiety, and loneliness. However, quite a lot of students have shown interest in animal welfare and education, daily routine caring for the dogs, even volunteering to help us run the sessions. We have seen some very quiet and passive students happily talking to other students proactively during the sessions. A student even asked us if she could bring the therapy dog with her to meet our student counsellor because she thinks she is more relaxed and better able to express herself with the dog’s presence.
6) Did COVID-19 prompt these sessions to be moved online? Did you see a surge in demand given how stressful 2020 has been?
We did not move the mingling session online, as we tried to use computer to talk to our therapy dog but found that he did not respond to anything that happened on the screen. We do not believe that moving the mingling sessions online will achieve our goal to support students. However we do see a surge in demand, as we have received a lot of enquiries for the therapy dog sessions. Therefore, we have tried our best to offer mingling sessions to those who we were in need when the COVID situation was better in Hong Kong and posted videos of therapy dog on our social media platform occasionally.