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Virtual therapy dog sessions offered in Saskatchewan

April 22, 2020

On Tuesday, the University of Saskatchewan Paws Your Stress therapy dog program launched its new online program.

It delivers pandemic-specific mental health safety tips for students and community members.

“We are all quickly learning that physical distancing doesn’t have to mean we disconnect from supports in our lives, and this includes therapy dogs,” said Colleen Dell, professor of sociology and the U of S’s research chair in One health and wellness. “We are fortunate to have the technology to take our service online during COVID-19.”

Partnering with the St. John Ambulance therapy dog program Dell will lead the delivery of the PAWS Your Stress program virtually, with 10-minute Facebook Live events at least twice a week for U of S students and the greater Saskatchewan community.

The live events feature a therapy dog doing every day healthy activities such as heading outside for walks and grooming. They’ll run until the end of July.

Zaphod, a great Pyrenees therapy dog, and handler Tonya will do the first online therapy dog visit Tuesday at 1 p.m.

Anyone looking to view the virtual events can watch on Facebook (@PAWSYourStress), and afterwards, the U of S said the recorded video will be linked to additional social media platforms, including Instagram (@pawsyourstress), Twitter (@PawsStress) and YouTube (PAWSYourStress).

“The therapy dog teams care deeply about the well-being of students, staff and faculty on our campus and the people of Saskatchewan. We hope these virtual visits will be helpful to a lot of people who are isolated right now – kids, youth, seniors and adults,” said Dell in a news release.

Dell told CTV News the program comes at a time where opportunities to connect with the community are limited due to public gathering restrictions and stay-at-home guidelines.

“The hope is people get some enjoyment from seeing the dogs do some tricks or different things. We’re showing how the dog stays healthy and how it can translate to us as humans, we can learn a few things from the dog, which is what our research program is about,” she said.

While she’s seen the benefit form personal contact and interactions between dogs and humans, she’s curious to see if those same physiological changes translate online.

“In person you have serotonin which increases. That’s the love hormone, and they say in just five minutes being with the animal that can increase. Whether that’s going to happen over the internet, I’m not too sure,” she said.

“We know that on social media the most favourite sites are those looking at pet pictures, cats and dogs and there’s got to be a reason for that. These are happy stories, pictures we really like to see.”

Faith Bodnar, executive director with the local Canadian Mental Health Association, said she’s had dogs in her life and she’s recognized how effective animal interactions are at helping people live in the moment.

The program is also partnering with Scholastic Canada for online readings of favourite children’s books. Therapy dog teams will be featured during the book-reading sessions online.

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