David Batstone
Photo Credit: David Batstone

Dogs are not only appreciated for the companionship they give to their owners, but for the joy they bring to others also.

Colleen Dell, Professor and Research Chair in Substance Abuse at the University of Saskatchewan, came up with the research idea of how dog therapy can help heal the soul and the heart of those who are dealing with health issues.

“The support and love are really important to people’s healing. Just being able to hug a dog … how good that feels,” says Dell.

In partnership with St. John’s Ambulance, Dell’s project provides dogs for people to hug. It is a free service available to everyone, from university students to people who are incarcerated.

“You can’t go up to your treatment counselor and say, ‘I need a hug’,” says Dell. “We have all those boundaries, but not the dogs.

“It’s amazing to watch people with the dogs,” says Dell. “We went to the Women’s Correctional [Centre] at the Regional Psychiatric Center in Saskatoon with one of the dogs, and that was really interesting.

“These are women who have been locked up for quite a long time and have no access to dogs, animals and have very little access to human touch,” says Dell. “They have 20-minutes sessions every two weeks; which isn’t a lot; but, it’s 20 minutes of pure happiness.”

Dell takes her three dogs, Subie, Anna-Belle and Kisbey, to different locations including the University of Saskatchewan (U of S) to help students during exam time, which is the most stressful period of the semester. Dell says this works as a prevention stress reducer for students who need a little bit of extra support.

A lot of the students miss their pets when they are away from their homes. And, in Saskatchewan, it’s very hard to find a place to rent where you can have a dog or a cat.

“We went to the U of S yesterday, to the Native Law Center, because they had a big exam coming up,” says Dell.  “We were there for an hour.

“The students came out of their class and hung out with the dog,” she says. “One guy stayed for 45 minutes. Others say, ‘This is the best part of my day’ and they take pictures of the dogs.”

Carol Reader, who works for the Program of Legal Studies for Native People (PLSNP) in the College of Law, read about Dell’s service in the campus newsletter. This was her first time utilizing this service.

“I thought this would be a good stress reliever and a good break from preparing for the final exam,” says Reader. After hearing the students’ feedback, Reader says she plans to use Dell’s pet therapy again next year.

“They were very positive and a lot of the students talked about how calm they felt afterwards,” she said. “You can just feel that the mood lifted and they were happy after their visit with Annabelle.

“I think what Colleen and Anna-Belle are doing is a fantastic thing,” says Reader. “They work so well together. Colleen is also really good at interacting with the students and helping to take their mind off what they’re doing.”

The dogs in the program are given temperament tests, to ensure that they have a good temperament for being around a lot of new people.

“One test they do is when a dog is in the middle of the room and five people come up to the dog and pet it all over…to see if the dog likes it or not,” says Dell. “It’s testing their character.”

Dell says the research team is trying to understand the experiences of the people who participate in pet therapy, so they are documenting their findings.

“Our next stage will be an environmental scan in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, of what our people are doing in the field right now,” says Dell.

The research team has collected data from studies at three universities--the University of Saskatchewan, the University of Regina and McMaster University in Ontario. They will be analyzing that data and plan to draft a paper with their findings by the end of the year.

The dogs have Facebook pages and they post everyday about their adventures with pet therapy. In the future, Dell says she would like to look into the virtual pet therapy through social media.

This research project is funded through a grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) until March of next year.

For more information about this research, please contact:

Jeanelle Mandes
Research Assistant - KT & Communications
Indigenous Peoples' Health Research Centre
CK 115 - University of Regina
3737 Wascana Parkway
Regina, SK Canada S4S 0A2
TEL: (306) 337-2437
CELL: (306) 515-1427