The unexpected success of Ryerson’s therapy dogs

First-year film studies student Kristen Romano would usually be at a coffee shop in between classes, but she’s happy to stay on campus today. Even though she could really use a break from school, she stands patiently in line outside the lower gym at Kerr Hall West. She’s excited to enter a gym full of cute, cuddly, therapy dogs she’s heard so much about.

“I’ve been so swamped with assignments and exams lately. And being in film [studies] you don’t even have weekends – it’s like constant, full-time, all-the-time school,” says Romano. “I like dogs and just to be able to see them will make me happy. I’m gonna stay here until my next class.”

Like Romano, hundreds of stressed-out Ryerson students visited Therapy Dogs this past school year. The inagural event by Student Affairs saw over 500 attendees. Inside the “Puppy Room,” at Ted Rogers School of Management, 650 students showed up over the course of three sessions. At these events, up to 10 student would sit around each dog to take turns petting, cuddling and loving.

On-campus events usually face a tough “commuter” crowd, but these dogs have had no problem seeing a turnout – even with no budget and minimal, day-of marketing.

It started in October of this school year. The Centre for Student Development and Counselling under the student affairs division, and the Ryerson Commerce Society organized the event.

It saw a lineup that wrapped around the entire floor of the Victoria building. Counsellor Bronwyn Dickson, who organized the first event, said this was not what she initially expected.

“Back in October, we weren’t prepared. Five hundred students – we did not anticipate that,” she said. “We had to make changes since the first event and we’ve been quite pleased.”

The first event was held in a small classroom in the Victoria building. “Now, there’s limited wait time. There will be 10 dogs and the event will fill a gym.”

Similarly, the Ryerson Commerce Society was stunned by the amount of interest the event received. Madelaine Sanginesi, the project manger of the Puppy Room said she completely underestimated attendance numbers.

“When you fill out the event management form, you have to write down how many guests you’re expecting. I put down 50,” said Sanginesi. “One of the events was at 8 a.m. on a Tuesday because getting a room was difficult; I still had a crowd of people at 8 in the morning. I was surprised because that is rare.”

Alya Singh, a third-year business student who attended the first therapy dogs event, said it had a “healing effect” on her.

“If you have a bad day, petting a dog is calming and soothing,” said Singh. “You just want something that makes people smile and this was one of those things.”

On its website, St. John Ambulance says that dogs are proven to reduce stress levels, lower blood pressure and improve ones overall quality of life. For the purpose of this event, volunteers from the community would bring in their own certified four-legged friends. The volunteers were recruited by the therapy dogs program at St. John Ambulance. The organization works with University of Toronto, York, Seneca, George Brown and Humber. Since January of this year, the Toronto branch has sent out 59 therapy dog teams to see over 2000 students at 10 different venues. The Toronto branch has 12 more events scheduled between in the month of April, alongside new requests that flow in each day.

Hollie Devlin, the school visits coordinator for the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program, said she is happy that the program is able to help students in the city.

“We hear about family pets and how much students miss them,” said Devlin. “I personally feel that therapy dog volunteering is the most rewarding kind of volunteer work you can do and I’ve heard many of our handlers say the same.”

Schools are a popular place for dogs and handlers to visit, Devlin added. Whenever a school posting goes up, the spots fill up within a couple hours and she even has to turn some handlers away.

“We often visit people who are lonely, frightened, in pain, feeling poorly, sad or just not quite 100%,” said Devlin. “Student visits are just the opposite – students are happy and healthy and so absolutely thrilled to spend time with our dogs. Handlers and therapy dogs love student visits and once they’ve attended one event, they always want to do more.”

Last semester, students suggested “more dogs more often” on a feedback survey by the RCS. Luckily for those who commented, therapy dogs have been returning regularly since – a total of 10 big visits this school year. On the feedback survey of 120 students, 95 per cent rated the Puppy Room a four or five out of five. The event was so loved that it even raised $650 in donations last semester.

In February, the Ryersonian reported that Ryerson’s counselling centre would launch four new groups to improve mental health on campus. The therapy dog program was a response to the long wait list times and the lack of available resources. Therapy dogs is an open group meaning that there is no cap on the number of students able to attend. These events are also volunteer-run, so they cost almost nothing to set up. Successful on-campus events often require loud advertising with some sort of budget, but therapy dogs was quite the opposite.

“This event was guaranteed to have a high turnout, but unlike our other events, we didn’t want a line at the door,” said Janet Lam, RCS vice-president of marketing. “We didn’t want a high turnout because we were advised that the dogs will get stressed themselves! Ironic, no?”

The RCS primarily used social media to advertise the event on the day of and let word of mouth do the job. “People have an affection for dogs and it’s made very obvious by the comments we get on our posts online,” said Lam.

Dickson also kept marketing to a minimal and mainly relied on emails and RU Student Life to take care of social media.

“We didn’t want to overdo ads because of the potential turnout,” she said. “We didn’t want to set students up for disappointment.”

To give you a better picture, a stress management workshop took place in the same week as therapy dogs sometime in November. With the same amount of marketing (emails), the workshop saw hardly any students, while therapy dogs overcrowded with 300 students.

Sanginesi says this was due to the fact that the event is innovative and different.

“The excitement was because we haven’t done it before,” said Sanginesi. “You can either listen to seminars about stress management or you can actually pet dogs and relieve stress.”

Looking into the future, Sanginesi believes the “new factor” may die off naturally. However, she guesses that numbers of turnout will remain much the same.

“I think the more we do it, the less exciting it will be because we’ve done it before,” said Sanginesi. “But who wouldn’t want to play with dogs? It’s not something you’d be like, ‘Oh, I’ve already done that.’”

Kristen Romano thoroughly enjoys her first time at the event. Like many other stressed-out students, she made the extra effort to drop by today because it was the last one of the school year.

“I wanted to come to one of these before, but never had the time. I saw a tweet that it’s the last one of the year, so I really didn’t want to miss it.”

And she would agree it was more therapeutic than any cup of coffee.

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