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Therapy dogs bring stress relief to Algonquin College

By Ryan Paulsen, The Daily Observer

After a hiatus of more than a decade, the Renfrew County St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program is back.

The program re-started back in August, and has been steadily adding to its cohort of dogs and handlers, as well as the list of places they offer their services, from health care facilities like Marionhill or the Pembroke Regional Hospital to retirement communities. This week, they’ve been expanding their destinations repertoire by spending three hours each day, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Algonquin College in the Ottawa Valley, camping out in the high-traffic area near the cafeteria and main entrance.

“They’re going around the community,” explains program co-ordinator Rachel Weikman, “they’re in retirement centres, and two of them go to the hospital. This is our first time in one of the schools. We’re in Algonquin College this week to relieve the stress of exams from the students. We’ve had a really good turnout; I think we’ve had more than 100 students come visit the dogs each day.”

Therapy dogs are most often associated with retirement homes, long-term care facilities and other health care settings, but at the most stressful time of year for postsecondary students, a brief respite petting a friendly pup can make all the difference in the world.

“I think it’s a great idea,” says nursing student Kristin Wilson. “It’s fun. It makes you smile.”

“It makes you happy when you come out of a bad test,” agrees fellow nurse-to-be Kelsey Scrim.

After three days of the trial-run visit to the campus, response has been so positive that the administration is giving serious thought to making it a new Algonquin tradition.

“Based on our experience,” says Pembroke campus dean Karen Davies, “we’ll be doing this again. It’s exam and final assessment week, so students are on edge. But the dogs come in, and [the students] are working, they get up and pet the dogs and then go back to their work. It’s just a little mini break, but they’re smiling and it’s absolutely wonderful.”

The program involves 15 dogs and 16 volunteer handlers, and they will be looking to expand their base in the coming months.

Before a dog is approved to participate in the program, it must first pass a screening process to make sure that they can properly handle the socializing integral to the work it will be doing.

While it may seem like a very minor thing to simply make a dog available for a bit of petting and playing, from the ear-to-ear grins on the students headed back to class or study group at Algonquin, it's no small service the program provides.

“It’s amazing," says Davies. "I cannot believe the excitement of the students. Honestly, as soon as they come in, the dogs are just surrounded, and they’re just happy happy. The dogs are happy and the students are happy.”

Ryan Paulsen is a Daily Observer multimedia journalist.

Follow him on Twitter @PRyanPaulsen.

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