Mental Squeeze: Furry Remedies

Pet Therapy Relieves Student Stress

  • Graphic Madeleine Gendreau

When asked for examples of volunteers, we might picture the helpful individuals serving up delicious vegan nosh at People’s Potato every week, or summon in our minds the calm and understanding voices on the other end of distress call phone lines.

Last semester, however, Concordia students walking into the International Students Office around exam time might have come face to face with volunteers of a different kind—ones with four paws, a lot of fur, and a wagging tail.

That’s because on Nov. 23, the International Students Office hosted an event put on by Access Centre for Students with Disabilities, which brought therapy dogs on campus to help soothe the severe stress that seems imminent during examination periods.

“I believe that it helps students decompress and relax while they are with the dogs,” said Kathleen Glustein, who works at the Access Centre and organized the event.

“We generally plan our therapy dogs events before exam periods, when students are very stressed. You can see a visible difference in them after they’ve been with the dogs.”

The event consisted of two dogs and their handlers, who came from Blue Ribbon Therapy Dogs, a Montreal-based non-profit organization.

Animal-assisted therapy is a field that has not been thoroughly examined by science, though there are studies being done to explore the benefits of it on emotional, physical and cognitive difficulties in humans.

Some studies have linked animal-assisted therapy with benefiting everything from autism and depression to chronic pain.

While the field is still being explored, according to Blue Ribbon Therapy Dogs co-founder Harriet Schleifer, there are tangible positive effects to the work that their furry volunteers do.

The organization has been operating since 2013, and consists of approximately 50 volunteer dogs—from Great Danes and Yorkshire Terriers—and their handlers, who visit a variety of institutions such as university campuses, primary schools for specialized reading programs, long-term care homes and healthcare facilities across Montreal to provide animal-assisted therapy free of charge.

“We know that the presence of dogs affects brain chemistry, it does things like increases specifically oxytocin … it increases that in the handler and the dog,” Schleifer said. “We know they lower stress, we know they lower blood pressure.”

Those are the sort of benefits that people could use during finals, which is why universities such as McGill and Concordia have been contacting Blue Ribbon Therapy Dogs to arrange visits during the high-octane exam season, when students are often sequestered away to cram, and mental health issues can flare under the pressure.

“Particularly in the university visits, it’s extremely noticeable. The dogs actually facilitate people interacting more with each other,” Schleifer said. “With students, they’re shut in their room studying, they don’t see their friends for two weeks, they come out to visit with the dog, they see their friends and socialize.”

“I believe that students lead hectic, busy lives and having a break with a friendly dog is great for them,” Glustein said.

Schleifer and one of her dogs, a Shetland Sheepdog named Brandy, have been spreading the benefits of animal-assisted therapy for nearly ten years now.

The origins of their volunteer work began when Schleifer’s mother was diagnosed with severe Alzheimer’s.

“If I’m feeling anxious, which I do a lot of the time, my Mastiff boy will get me out of the house and go for a walk, which I always find soothing.” — Samantha Forrest

“We got to a point where she didn’t even remember I was there, but if I brought the dog, she did,” Schleifer said. “When my mom passed away, I decided I wanted to be able to continue doing this for other people.”

She sought out a way to have her pets certified as therapy dogs, and then decided to expand on the idea.

She began to work with Lise Hargrave, who owns Blue Ribbon Canine Centre, which specializes in obedience and training classes for dogs. All Blue Ribbon therapy dogs are put through two levels of obedience courses and then further therapy certifications.

According to Schleifer, the volunteers at BRTD are so passionate about the work they do that many will take vacation days from their jobs to ensure they can go on visits with their dogs. The organization provides the rest, included leashes and vests to identify the dogs in public. BRTD survives on donations.

Samantha Forrest, who is a foster home volunteer with the Animal Rescue Foundation of Ontario, an organization which works with First Nation reservations to rescue, rehabilitate, and rehome stray animals by community member request, also attested to the emotional benefits of having animal companions.

“My two resident dogs are so in tuned with my emotions that they know exactly what I need at all times. If I feel sad, my girl will physically lay on my chest, she will calm me by just being around,” Forrest said.

“If I’m feeling anxious, which I do a lot of the time, my Mastiff boy will get me out of the house and go for a walk, which I always find soothing.”

Forrest is considering having her Mastiff trained for animal-assisted therapy.

“Having dogs around allows you to never feel alone, they are always around to talk to, and they truly listen,” Forrest added. “Dogs have allowed me to love myself. And that’s the greatest gift I could ever ask for.”

Schleifer’s views confirmed that this is a common effect for those who have long-standing animal companions, or even temporary visits with them.

“We know that the stress hormones go down in the presence of dogs so basically, they make people feel much better about everything,” she said. “Students were reporting when they felt stressed, six months after the visit with the dog, it would help to relax them, just by thinking about the visit with the dog.”

Even an interaction with a dog can brighten someone’s outlook. Schleifer described having therapy dog session in public spaces, and watching the stressed and grim get a small boost from even the presence of an animal.

“All of the sudden everything loosens up and they’re smiling,” she said. “It’s incredible to watch that happen from one person to another. And that’s not interacting with the dogs, that’s from just walking through the area.”
Glustein said that Concordia is planning another dog therapy event for mid-April, and the final exam period.

As for Schleifer, she believes that the vast benefits of animal-assisted therapy are only beginning to be tapped, and that the organization will continue to expand as the field discovers more venues for therapy dogs and their vast array of benefits—beyond the warm and fuzzies.

“I would hope more and more people end up with the benefits of this,” she said, “because I see how much good that it does.”

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