The project, which was formally announced on Bell Let's Talk Day on Jan. 31, is an attempt to expand on the College’s popular Paws 4 Stress program that has seen therapy dogs visit students in classrooms, residences and around the campus.
“There is nothing like the company of a dog to take your cares away,” College President Cheryl Jensen said in a recent column in the Algonquin Times regarding plans for a “special new employee (to) join our Algonquin family.”
In furthering that goal, members of the AC committee overseeing the project met recently with Shannon Noonan, who runs a therapy dog pilot project at Carleton University. (The committee is exploring several different options for a therapy-dog program — including the Carleton model — to see which might work best at Algonquin.)
Noonan was accompanied by Blue, a five-year-old Great Dane-Pointer mix who provided ample evidence of the emotional benefits of dog-companionship — at least judging by the oohs and aahs of committee members and other employees who crossed his path.
According to Noonan, the project has been a resounding success over the last year-and-a-half of operations at Carleton. She initially began making Blue available to students when she was a campus residence manager. Those who came to her with emotional concerns or mental health issues found Blue’s presence comforting. Now as many as 20 to 30 students make appointments to see Blue during his twice-weekly "office hours."
“Students say he always brightens their day,” she says.
Some students spend only five minutes with Blue, just enough time for a dose of mutual affection. Others can take an hour or more. Many students – about 50 per cent by Noonan’s estimate – make repeat visits.
Noonan, who holds a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology from the University of New Brunswick, argues that changing social mores have made animal therapy a necessity on campuses. The old days of leaving students to cope as best they can on their own are no longer acceptable.
“Campus life is much different for students from what it was even 20 years ago. The growth of technology and social media has had a huge influence on how people … respond to stress.”
Indeed, Noonan says students nowadays can feel disconnected from both the social and the natural world despite their high-tech connections. They may also lack skills in personal resilience or even capacity for intimacy. A few sessions of “companionship” with a dog like Blue can help them gain a sense of connection and even attachment. As Noonan puts it, “An animal is a way to help them learn those skills.”
A growing body of research supports Noonan’s promotion of the benefits of dog therapy.
For example, a 2016 University of British Columbia study found that first-year students who completed an eight-week dog therapy program were better able to cope with homesickness and less inclined to drop out than those who didn’t receive the therapy. They also appear to perform better academically and derive more satisfaction from their lives.
“Students learn better when they have lower levels of stress,” says the study’s author, John Tyler Binfet, an assistant professor at UBC’s Okanagan campus. “By having therapy dogs on campus, we know scientifically that they create conditions for optimal learning.”
The Therapy Dog initiative is continuing through the spring and summer with the hope of introducing Algonquin's own therapy dog to the College community this fall.
PHOTO: Blue, Carleton University's in-house therapy dog, visited Algonquin College recently. Photo by Chris Carroll.