Dog Therapy helps stressed students during exam period

SFU’s Health & Counselling Centre hosted the event on Nov 12 and 13

Oliver the Havanese at Dog Therapy

By: Jess Dela Cruz, News Writer

“Woof woof! Arf arf arf!” said Beatrix the dog in an exclusive interview with The Peak. “Grrr, woof woof arf!” 

Beatrix was one of many dogs present at SFU’s regular Dog Therapy event, hosted by SFU’s Health & Counselling Centre at Surrey campus on November 12 and 13. 

Typically held around exam season, Dog Therapy is a two-hour therapy session that provides students the opportunity to wind down and de-stress by cuddling puppies and senior dogs. In partnership with St. John Ambulance, volunteers brought their dogs for students to interact with to help them calm down during this ruff time. 

Sarah Saghah, the Marketing & Communications Coordinator at SFU Health & Counselling, recounts the history of Dog Therapy in an email interview with The Peak. It began in 2012 where the Director of Health & Counselling at the time brought his dogs to SFU’s Indigenous Student Centre; this received a highly positive response from staff and students there. Following this occurrence, the seed was planted for what is now Dog Therapy. According to Saghah, the purpose of the event is to “gather students together in a positive environment where they can spend time with fluffy friends (dogs).” 

St. John Ambulance’s website explains that “Therapy Dogs can help meet the need for physical touch, as stroking and touching a dog has been proven to lower blood pressure, calm people who are agitated and refresh the mind of those who are confused.”

Beatrix’s mom Elise McKenna volunteered to bring her dog to participate in the event. After retirement, Mckenna decided to do volunteer work with St. John Ambulance. She believes dog therapy is not just beneficial for students, but for volunteers and animals as well. She sees the positive impact dog therapy has on Beatrix, her standard poodle.

“One thing for poodles is that they are very intelligent,” McKenna explains. “So, having different stimulations is very good for them. She’s going to be exhausted over this. She has to think, she has to smell, she’s paying attention.” 

The Peak asked students in attendance the reasons they felt compelled to attend the event. 

Katrien Jacobs says: “I’m here because I love dogs a lot. I have a dog back home which is in a different province from here. And I haven’t seen my dog in so long [ . . . ] so I miss them so much and being able to interact would bring so much happiness to me.” 

Therapy dogs not only attend events like these, but also visit senior homes as well — like one of the volunteers Sylvia Smoliga and her three-year-old French Bulldog, Fern. For Fern, the training never stops and she is constantly learning.  

“The more regularly you do this, the more used to it the dog gets,” Smoglia explains. 

As Smoliga speaks with The Peak, the sounds of high-pitched “aww”s and “oh my gosh, she’s so cute” fill the Dog Therapy space. As these dogs are well-trained, you don’t hear many barks or see them chase one another. In a safe and controlled environment, these dogs are extremely well-behaved and capture the attention, hearts, and Snapchat stories of students. 

Smoliga continues, “Sometimes they have a tendency to just get overly excited. It depends on everyone else’s energy, but ultimately you want to keep them as calm as possible, as the handler. So you always have to keep control of the dog and make sure they are not scared, skittish, or anything like that, that process is ongoing – it never stops.” 

She adds that, “as soon as [Fern] puts on her little bandana and collar on, it’s like she knows she’s working.” 

10-year-old Havanese, Oliver, tried his darndest to get into The Peak. He stood on his two hind legs, twirled, and told The Peak excitedly, “Yip! Yip!” 

But when asked to give paw, he stayed silent, ignoring the treat on offer and went looking the other way, as this trick was rather beneath him even to get into The Peak. “It’s not like it’s Rolling Stone or something,” he appeared to say, to The Peak’s disappointment.

The next dog therapy will be at the SFU Vancouver’s Teck Gallery Lounge on November 26 & 27 from 12:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. 

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