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Therapy dogs help students hounded by stress

By VIVIEN FELLEGI | DEC 22 2016

The University of Toronto Mississauga is hosting a distinguished visitor and students that have huddled around the top dog, tails wagging, are learning a few new tricks.

A visit by St. John Ambulance therapy dog Grace is one of the stress-busters organized by the office of student transition during this year’s exams. The golden retriever lies on her back in the lobby of the Instructional Centre, tongue lolling and eyes half-closed. She yawns.

Two students scratch her stomach, one takes photos with her cellphone and another offers a treat. “I’ve never seen a dog like this – have you checked her heartbeat?” asks a passerby. The crowd laughs.

Melanie Asselin needs this distraction. She is a first-year forensic psychology student. Her program is very competitive, and she knows she has to excel in her exams in order to remain in it. “I’ve been a hermit in my dorm for a week – I haven’t even had time to go to the gym,” Ms. Asselin says. She adds that she is having trouble sleeping, suffers cold sweats and wakes up crying.

U of T’s executive director of health and wellness, Janine Robb, is not surprised by the outbreak of anxiety among students like Ms. Asselin. “The stakes are really high in exams,” Ms. Robb says. Especially for students who need to score good grades to get into graduate school or to land a coveted job. Poor marks are also a blow to the self-esteem of students used to acing high school classes.

U of T students relax with a therapy dog from St. John Ambulance. Photo by Kevin Soobrian/U of T Egineering.

Luckily the dog therapy program, which began at Western University over a decade ago and now operates on more than 50 percent of Canadian campuses, counteracts this tailspin. Studies have shown that dogs are calming for many people –  heart rates, blood pressure, and even stress hormones all drop in the presence of the animal, says University of Guelph veterinary professor Lee Niel. Gazing into a dog’s eyes can cause oxytocin (the cuddle hormone) to be released in both humans and their helpmates. And, unlike the human species, dogs refrain from judgment. “They have no expectations,” says Dr. Niel.

While most campuses employ canine counsellors, U of T has brought in cats and at Memorial University, guinea pigs are providing snuggle services.

Of course some would-be therapists are barking up the wrong tree, says Lesley Jack, a St. John Ambulance therapy dog adviser. Candidates are petted over their whole bodies, bombarded with loud noises and exposed to objects like wheelchairs. “They don’t need to love the situation but they need to tolerate it,” Ms. Jack says.

Grace passed the test with flying colours, says her handler, Julie Stephens. When Ms. Asselin calls the dog, the animal touches her hand. The pet seems to know who needs her the most, says Ms. Stephens.

Ms. Asselin says she feels comforted by her new friend. “She makes me feel warm inside.” The student is even breathing easier after the pooch pause. “I have a greater motivation to get through the day.” She sips her coffee, smiles and strides away.

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