by Judy Beltzner
Late nights. Too much coffee. Cramming. Away from home for the first time. So much pressure! Anyone who has gone to university recognizes the causes and symptoms of students’ anxiety. Now there is a new way to help students get through trying times during the academic year when their tension builds. How to do it? With therapy dogs!
Ottawa’s two universities recognize the benefits of interaction with therapy dogs and are offering it to their students in slightly different ways. At the University of Ottawa, Student Academic Success Services and Health Promotion Services collaborate to offer a weekly, hour-long program for students who are feeling anxious or living through stressful situations. Students can spend time with one or more of several therapy dogs, including a beautiful golden retriever named Luther from Ottawa Therapy Dogs.
Luther’s handler is Sylvie Lambert. Though her job is teaching translation at uOttawa, her mission in life is doing therapy work with her dogs. Sylvie was part of the initial pilot program there with Luther’s predecessor, Rusty Bear. Now, she brings Luther every second Friday and takes a visceral pleasure in how much the students cherish their time with him. “When I leave,” she says, “I’m high as a kite.” The students’ interactions with Luther are 100% genuine and sincere, from the heart, with no artifice and without the protective barriers that humans sometimes put up between themselves.
The uOttawa therapy dog program began in 2012 and is currently coordinated by Sylvie Fournel-Marko. The program is hugely popular, with students lined up out the door to wait for their opportunity to visit with the dogs. Peak times are around mid-terms and exams, but the program is always well attended with an average of 80 – 100 students visiting with three dogs during the one-hour session. University staff sometimes join in as well. Ms. Fournel-Marko says that students typically leave with comments like “this made my day” and “this really helped me.” Homesick students, especially from overseas or those missing their own dogs, are particularly appreciative of the warm welcome they get from the therapy dogs.
A study of the pilot program concluded that it offered students “a sense of love and support … a means to reduce stress from their studies.” Students’ ratings showed that they were glad they came (4.95 on a 5-point scale), felt more calm and relaxed (4.29/5) and would recommend the program to others (4.96/5). These findings are borne out by several U.S. studies using both physiological measures and responses to questionnaires, which concluded that time spent with therapy dogs buffers the stress response in university students, regardless of previous pet ownership or their attitudes to dogs.
Carleton University offers students the opportunity to interact with therapy dogs through its Procrastination Busters program, which provides a quiet study space to help students “get things done.” Participants attend the program twice a week during academic terms, and dogs are there as additional motivators. One of these dogs is Dozer from Ottawa Therapy Dogs, along with his handler, Elise Laviolette.
Dozer is a mellow, Zen-like English bulldog who is a real draw for the 15 or so students in the group. Spending time with him is a reward they give themselves when they accomplish a goal. Because it is quite unusual to have an English bulldog as a therapy dog, the students love to take selfies with Dozer and post them on Instagram! They tell Elise that he calms them down and makes them happy to come to the group. Elise takes pleasure in being back in the university environment after 20 years, spending time with students and helping them achieve their goals. She has also noticed a change in Dozer since he started his university ‘gig’ — he has become more attuned to people and now seeks contact with them in all kinds of environments. It’s like “he knows his job is to be admired and petted,” she says, “and he loves it!”
As PsychologyToday.com concluded in a March 2018 post by Stanley Coren, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia, even a single contact with a therapy dog in a group setting is effective at reducing students’ stress, and the measurable positive effects last for hours afterwards.
University students in Ottawa are very fortunate to have the chance to reduce their stress by visiting with Luther, Dozer and other wonderful therapy dogs.
Judy Beltzner has been a member of Ottawa Therapy Dogs since 2010. Currently an associate member, Judy is a past Director on Ottawa Therapy Dogs’ Board of Directors and was part of a therapy dog team with Tigger, a beautiful black lab – golden retriever cross. Tigger was born to be a guide dog and when seizures prevented him from pursuing that career, Judy determined that he could serve people in a different way. He brought much comfort to hospitalized children and their families, and also loved being read to by children at local libraries as part of the Reading Education Assistance Dogs® (R.E.A.D.®) program.