Canine therapy provides cure — sort of


Playing with dogs makes you happy.

That’s the idea behind a school program that aims to use student-dog interactions to help combat stress.

When I first heard of it, I thought to myself: “This is ridiculous. What does relieving stress have to do with petting a dog?”

To my surprise, the program’s head says therapy dogs are effective and  self-evaluations prove it. Of course, the evaluations only measure subjective mood improvement when students have not left the presence of the pooch for long.

What about when the sessions end? And what about students suffering from more than just Monday blues?

The program, RU Dog Therapy, started last year in October during Ryerson’s mental well-being week.

Bronwyn Dickson, who heads the program, said 15 to 30 visitors attended regularly during the summer, when campus was empty.

“Faculty and staff were also taking an opportunity when there wasn’t a big lineup,” she said.

Dickson said the dogs’ presence “elevates the mood,” and past participants have reported “significant reductions” in stress.

“The dogs offer unconditional love, grounding and are very calm while other dogs are more animated and funny” Dickson said. “They want to spend time with you.”

But while the program did ask students to self-evaluate at the end of a sessions, it provides no continual follow-up treatments or surveys to gauge whether the dogs alleviated students’ stress for the long term.

The program also lasts for only one hour each week. Hopefully the relaxed feeling you experience from being with the dogs will last all week.

No studies have yet measured the long-term benefits of this program.

Unfortunately,  only a very controlled study — in which students and dogs are under tight observation — would be able to effectively measure any long-term improvement in students.

And such a study may not be practical. The student, for example, may be uncomfortable being studied and may interact with the dog differently, making it hard for researchers to draw conclusions because the organic interaction is lost.

Chances are, therapy dogs can help relieve smaller annoyances such as social anxiety or just for a general pick-me-up, but students suffering from other conditions — depression, mood disorders, eating disorders, etc. — are going to need more than a Monday session with a dog.

The sessions start at 1 p.m. and runs every Monday at room 50B in the Podium building. Three certified therapy dogs will be available to a maximum of 10 students per dog.

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