The University of Saskatchewan PAWS Your Stress Therapy Dog program was initiated in 2015 by Centennial Enhancement Chair in One Health and Wellness, Dr. Colleen Anne Dell. It is offered in collaboration with campus Peer Health and St. John Ambulance (Saskatoon). The goal of the visiting therapy dog is to offer program participants feelings of comfort/love and support.
The program has grown substantially since its beginning, with visits now being offered to students as well as faculty and staff, in both group and one-on-one settings. The program welcomes many wonderful therapy dog teams from across the Saskatoon community, as well as increasingly from our own campus, including current and retired staff, managers, students, and faculty.
A therapy dog team is made-up of a volunteer human handler and their companion dog, and both have undergone suitability screening and have passed the national therapy dog/handler test from St. John Ambulance.
Our initial evaluation of the PAWS Your Stress program is available in the Canadian Journal of Counselling and Psychotherapy. Curiosity has us currently assessing the immediate and longer-term program outcomes, including our new on-line component, to ensure we achieve out intended goals.
The PAWS Your Stress virtual program launched in April 2020, in response to the COVID-19 global pandemic, and with support from the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation’s Rapid Response funding program.
In March 2020, the University of Saskatchewan implemented a working remotely policy because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our therapy dog program responded within a few short weeks by moving online. Our online program goals were to:
(1) virtually extend the sense of connection to the university by enabling students, and all people of Saskatchewan and elsewhere, to visit with the dogs online to gain comfort and support,
(2) share evidence-informed information about pandemic-specific mental health self-care tips from the perspective of the therapy dogs.
Learn more here about the activities and outputs from our transition to an online program format (April to July, 2020).
Pet Partners recently released a White Paper on animal-related engagement, defining it as “[a]ny engagement opportunity that allows participants the benefits of the human-animal bond by encouraging the remembrance of feelings that are commonly associated with interaction with an animal”. The paper indicates that virtual visits are showing promise to be beneficial to human health and so too are other types of activities that draw on fond animal memories. Our team has also drawn on it's own research in the therapy dog area to transition to on-line visiting, including a hospital emergency department, methadone clinic, veterans’ care facility, prisons and other forensic facilities, and the university campus.
Our evaluation results for the online program have been accepted for peer reviewed publication in Animals and will be available soon -- "A Commentary about Lessons Learned: Transitioning a Therapy Dog Program Online during the COVID-19 Pandemic”. We undertook a combined process-outcome evaluation followed by a needs assessment over a three-month period. Our first process-outcome questionnaire was designed to assess participant opinion and experiences with the PAWS Your Stress online program. Highlights of our findings are available in two infographics here. Our second needs assessment questionnaire assessed participant needs and preferences regarding program implementation to help inform future programming. An infographic highlighting the results can be found here.
Our team also conducted a process evaluation of the implementation of our online visiting program (September - December, 2021). Key findings included handlers and students appreciating the opportunity to visit and connect, multiple advantages to hosting therapy dog visits online during the COVID-19 pandemic, including a break from daily routines , and the handler's role includes greater attention to facilitating engagement in the Zoom sessions. An outcome evaluation (January - April, 2021) is currently underway.
A great big thank you to the PAWS Your Stress therapy dog teams who are boldly contributing to our campus community. One Health is a signature area at the University of Saskatchewan, promoting teamwork for the optimal health of people, animals and the environment. In turn, PAWS Your Stress is supporting the University of Saskatchewan 2025 plan - nīkānītān manācihitowinihk (Cree) ni manachīhitoonaan (Michif), meaning “Let us lead with respect”. As this plan says, "As a community,we have a shared responsibility to honour and join in the journey or reconciliation".
We have stories in our culture about superheros, how we treat each other, stories about how
animals and plants give us authorities and privileges to use plants as healing, but we also have
stories about practices. How would we practice reconciliation?
Elder Reg Crowshoe, 2015, Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada Final Report