Therapy dogs ease student stress

caption: Dalhousie Universtiy students visit with Colby, a five-year-old Labradoodle with Therapeutic Paws of Canada, in the university’s puppy room. (Photo by Danny Abriel)

caption: Dalhousie Universtiy students visit with Colby, a five-year-old Labradoodle with Therapeutic Paws of Canada, in the university’s puppy room. (Photo by Danny Abriel)

By J. Leslie Johnson

The University of Calgary is taking a new approach to handling student stress: it is supplementing its conventional two-legged counsellors with four-legged ones.

The idea of having a “puppy room” – a place where students can pet a pup and relieve their stress – is the brainchild of fifth-year law student Ben Cannon. The volunteer Big Brother became Vice-President, Student Life for the 2013/2014 school term after beating two other candidates with his “puppy platform.”

“It’s a great idea, and I would use it for sure,” says Hilary Cornelius, a third-year Sociology student at the University of Calgary. “When I’m stressed, I go to the pet stores. I love to see the pets, and I can tell it lifts my mood.”

Sworn into office in May, Cannon is using the dog days of summer to put his puppy plans into place for the fall term. “I got the idea after reading about the success Dalhousie had with its puppy room,” explains Cannon. The Students’ Union there started its puppy program in 2012 bringing in two to four therapy dogs for three days during its fall exam period.”

Dalhousie students were enthusiastic about it. When the Students’ Union posted a puppy room picture on its Facebook page, it was reportedly shared by more than 2,000 users. Puppy power has also been tried out at other universities in Canada such as McGill and the University of Victoria.

Cannon says the Students’ Union will definitely use therapy dogs for its puppy room rather than asking people to bring in their pets. “Therapy dogs are different than service dogs,” says Joan Andersen, volunteer coordinator of the Pet Access League Society (PALS), a Calgary-based animal therapy organization. “Service dogs are trained to help a person with a specific need like mobility. Therapy dogs are more outgoing. They love everybody.”

The canine volunteers at PALS range in size from a tiny Yorkshire Terrier to a massive Newfoundland dog. All of the canine counsellors, however, are one year old or more. “Puppies have sharp little teeth and uncertain bathroom habits,” says Andersen, “and they have a short attention span.” She says people “just use the term ‘puppy room’ because it has a warm and fuzzy feel to it.”

The idea of snuggling up to a fluffy pet during stressful times certainly rates high on the cuddly scale. And many pet guardians share stories about the soothing influence of their pets. But does science back this up?

In 2010, Kerstin Uvnas-Moberg, a Swedish medical doctor and physiologist, presented her findings on “the role of oxytocin in human animal interaction” at the 12th International Conference of Human-Animal Interactions held in Stockholm, Sweden. Uvnas-Moberg said certain human animal interactions such as stroking a beloved animal will cause oxytocin, a hormone associated with relaxation, to be released in humans. “Oxytocin induces well-being and the level of pain and inflammation is decreased,” she explains. And it leads to reduced cortisol levels, a hormone associated with stress.

Oxytocin also plays an important role in strengthening social interaction. Uvnas-Moberg notes that in humans, oxytocin is released during interactions between mothers and infants such as breastfeeding. The hormone increases bonding between mother and child. She suggests a similar process might occur during some human/animal interactions. “Dogs in some studies have been shown to stimulate social interaction and social competence, to reduce anxiety and increase in trust in others,” Uvnas-Moberg observes.

Scientific research says puppy rooms relieve stress. But do students really need it? “From what I see myself and from what students tell me, mental health is a key issue,” says Ben Cannon. And research bears this out.

In November 2012, Queen’s University completed a year-long study on student mental health and wellness after the campus suffered six student deaths in only two years. The Queen’s study noted that, across Canada, suicide is the second leading cause of death among youths, ages 10 to 24, after car accidents. It observed the student-aged population is “also the peak development period for the onset of most psychiatric disorders, including major depression.” The report made 116 recommendations designed at improving student mental health such as having a fall break from classes and starting community support programs such as adopt-a- grandparent and pet therapy.

The Government of Alberta also recognizes the need to address student mental health. In 2013, the provincial government gave $3 million each to the University of Calgary, University of Lethbridge and University of Alberta. The funds, which will be spread over three years, will support student mental health and addiction services in these institutions.

Clearly, mental health is a key concern for students. Does Ben Cannon have a strategy if the stress of student life proves too ruff for him? “I have my own dog,” explains Cannon, “a three-year old Labradoodle named Lucy.” He adds, “She is a valued family member and a great stress reliever.”

—J. Leslie Johnson is a Cochrane-based freelance writer who shares her home with three furry companions — Nuska, Timber, and Ollie.