Therapy dogs comfort soldiers returning from war, befriend people who are suffering from addictions and even reassure children at a dentist's office. After recent incidents such as the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., and the bombings in Boston, Mass., therapy dogs were members of the resource team that helped local residents deal with their grief and fear.
"They're there to provide love and make people happy," says Colleen Dell, a professor in the Department of Sociology and the School of Public Health at the University of Saskatchewan (U of S). She has also been the university's Research Chair in Substance Abuse for the past six years.
Dell owns three dogs, two of which are St. John's Ambulance therapy dogs. Anna-Belle spends many of her working hours at Brightwater Living, a senior's residence in Saskatoon, where she regularly brightens the day of the facility's residents. Subie spends his time at the Calder Centre — a substance abuse treatment and recovery centre for Saskatchewan youth.
"Last week one of the kids [at the addictions centre] saw Subie and said, ‘Here's my anti-depressant for the day,' and I just thought that was really powerful."
The two dogs also visit many other facilities and events in the Saskatoon area. Dell is working with U of S-based groups to arrange for the dogs to work year round with university students and address issues such as binge drinking and stress.
This past spring, Anna-Belle travelled to the University of Regina (U of R) along with other therapy dog teams to visit students during final exams.
"I thought, ‘Really – how many people are going to come during exam time?'" Dell says. "Well, we had more than 200 people line up. It was crazy — to watch those students interact with the dogs was amazing. We're definitely looking at doing the same thing here at the U of S."
Dell credits her first dog, Roxie for igniting her passion for pet therapy. She adopted the six-month-old boxer from a humane society while working on her PhD degree.
"I started [my PhD] in September, and by January, I wasn't doing anything except my work and I wasn't going out — I'd wear my pajamas for three days straight and I'd do my work," she explains.
"I knew that it wasn't healthy, so I got Roxie – she was an amazing dog. She made me get out. I think I was doing pet therapy for myself, and I didn't even know it."
After Roxie died, Dell and her husband eventually brought Anna-Belle, Subie and their other boxer, Kisby, home to their Saskatoon-area acreage. Anna-Belle and Subie received their St. John's Ambulance certification in March, joining nearly 100 other groups of therapy dogs across Saskatchewan.
Since their dogs weren't regularly exposed to other dogs, animals and people, Dell had to do a lot of extra training to familiarize her pets with a variety of objects and situations.
"We rented a wheelchair for a month, we had crutches in the house, we had a cane in the house, we had a walker . . . we were dropping pans in the kitchen and just making lots of loud noises in the house. It was exposure training."
Dell's therapy activities with Anna-Belle and Subie fit in perfectly with her other research efforts at the U of S. Her work focuses on addictions and mental health, and she's been working with other Canadian researchers to better understand how equine assisted learning (EAL) contributes to the well being of First Nations youth who misuse volatile substances.
EAL involves young people working closely with horses and developing a partnership with the animals.
"Horses are so in tune with how you feel," says Dell. "If you try to push that horse and tell it what to do, it's not going to do it. Not until you respect that horse will it do what you want it to do."
The youth work through various exercises with the horses, giving them a chance to develop a relationship that's based on trust and understanding.
"Some talked about it as having a friend – this is what it would mean to have a friend," she says. "So I'm trying to take what I've done [with EAL] and build on that and learn from that and make it into something here [with the therapy dogs]."
Dell is interested in finding a way to study the energy that's exchanged during these visits with animals: "I'm really interested in the human-animal bond . . . what's going on there? How do I explain that, how do I measure that . . . how do I provide an indicator of love?"
Dell plans to continue her EAL research and further expand the work that she does with her dogs.
"I love my dogs, but as a researcher, I'm critical of what's actually happening there: is it really that simple? Can so much happen in that brief encounter between an animal and a person?
"I haven't been doing this for that long, but more and more I see that yes — it can."
Follow Anna-Belle and Subie's adventures on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/AnnaBelleSubiesAdventures.
Melissa Cavanagh of Winnipeg, Man., is a second-year veterinary student and the WCVM's research communications intern for the summer of 2013.