Taking Therapy Dogs On-line During COVID-19

Colleen Dell, PhD

In March of this year, when our provincial government declared a State of Emergency because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Saskatchewan implemented a working remotely policy. Like many post-secondary institutions in Canada and elsewhere that have a therapy dog program, the visits were shut down. With university courses transitioning to an on-line format, some therapy dog programs, including our own, wondered if we could do the same. The main question was whether visiting with therapy dogs on-line could be effective?

Since you’re reading this newsletter on-line, let’s give it a try of sorts! The white bulldog below is Anna-Belle the therapy dog, and I have had the pleasure of working alongside her in this capacity and involving her in my academic research program for the past eight years. She is a skilled teacher. To her right is Kisbey the boxer with her adorable greying face. I have worked with Kisbey for the same amount of time and she is now semi-retired at 12 years of age. Beside her is Subie, also a boxer. I worked with Subie in his capacity as a therapy dog and also trained him as a Service Dog for a research project involving veterans who problematically use substances and who are diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder. Subie passed away while working with me at a fly-in mine in Northern Saskatchewan nearly a year ago. He is missed dearly. And last but not least is sweet E-Jay, our newest boxer recruit at 15 months old. He has already been visiting with prisoners in a Canine Assisted Learning (CAL) program I run with my colleague, Dr. Darlene Chalmers, in Drumheller prison in Alberta, Canada.

Feeling any happier? Pet Partners recently released a White Paper on animal-related engagement, defining it as “[a]ny engagement opportunity that allows participants the benefits of the human-animal bond by encouraging the remembrance of feelings that are commonly associated with interaction with an animal”. The paper indicates that virtual visits are showing promise to be beneficial to human health and so too are other types of activities, like viewing photos, that draw out animal memories.

All four of these incredible canines, Anna-Belle, Kisbey, E-Jay and Subie, definitely bring a smile to my face as they have foremost been companion animals in my life. I have had the opportunity to develop a unique bond with each of them through immeasurable hours spent together living, working, playing and training. In fact, my own experience with the reciprocal power of the human-animal bond is the reason I entered the animal assisted intervention (AAI) research field. I have had the honour for nearly a decade now of watching and attempting to understand how individuals benefit from their relationships with therapy dogs and the dogs with them.

The USask therapy dog program, PAWS Your Stress, is a partnership between my One Health office, campus Peer Health, and the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog program. Like many campuses in North America, therapy dogs visit regularly to provide comfort and support to students and more so during examination periods. We also do one-on-one visits with students through Peer Health, attend special events, and started offering faculty and staff specific visits in the 2019. Our program began in 2014 and today we have a committed group of over 35 volunteer therapy dog teams helping our campus community feel cared for.

With financial support from the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation, our team identified two goals for our 14-week exploratory on-line program: (1) virtually extend the sense of USask therapy dog community connection by enabling students, and all people of Saskatchewan and elsewhere, to visit with the dogs on-line, and (2) share evidence-informed information about pandemic-specific mental health self-care tips from the perspective of the therapy dogs. Over the past six weeks our team has engaged with several on-line platforms in an attempt to reach these goals.

At first, our team felt as though we knew little about how to achieve our on-line program goals. With some reflection though, we quickly recognized that we needed to draw upon the evidence-base about the effectiveness of therapy dogs in human health. For example, we know about the benefits of the human-animal connection, that individuals feel happy in the presence of therapy dogs, and that participants like to learn about the dogs’ personalities. I am fortunate to work with a stellar group of humans that have helped contribute to the AAI research field – diverse researchers, therapy dog handlers, practitioners and system representatives. We also drew upon the outcomes of our own experiences and studies with therapy dogs, including in a hospital emergency department, at a methadone clinic, a veterans’ care facility, prisons and other forensic facilities, and the university campus.

Realizing that we had the content to transition to an on-line format with the therapy dogs, the next challenge was to determine the process. Upon further reflection, we recognized we had some, albeit limited, on-line experiences with therapy dogs. For example, I have been hosting a Facebook community detailing my therapy dogs’ work for many years, and where meaningful connections have been developed and maintained on-line with individuals. We have also offered video-conferencing every few months for the past several years to maintain connections with prisoners involved in our CAL program. The fact remained though that we knew little about effectively using social media platforms.

In response, our team chose to do what we were most comfortable with personally on social media, which admittedly was not the most effective way to choose a platform. It was the most viable option at the time however, given how quickly we transitioned our program on-line. We chose Facebook live visits, recorded videos on Flipgrid, and storybook read-along sessions on our website. We promote all three types of these on-line therapy dog visits through Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Our Facebook live events are a great way to visually connect and chat with individuals in real time. They feature a therapy dog involved in a healthy activity (e.g., eating, going for a walk, learning a new trick) and the activity is linked to a pandemic specific mental health tip. For example, I did an event this week at sunset by a pond where therapy dogs Anna-Belle and Kisbey rested quietly, as part of their nightly routine, before they went to bed. We offer the live events several times a week and they average 15 minutes each. The majority of views, however, are generated when the video is archived and promoted across our social media platforms.

Our pre-recorded videos on flipgrid are greetings from the therapy dog teams, commonly mentioning the places the dogs regularly visit. These videos average about 2 minutes in length and typically feature the dog in an everyday activity (e.g., chasing a Frisbee, eating a cookie). The aim is to maintain connection by letting people know we are thinking of them.

Our on-line readings of children’s books is offered in partnership with Scholastic Canada. Our handlers read aloud to their dogs and the viewers. We chose this format because research has shown that being read to can help develop meaningful connections. It is a variation of the popular children reading to a therapy dog program found in schools and public libraries.

You can find us on:

We are just about to start our mid-point process and outcome evaluations to determine if we are achieving the goals we set out for our on-line program. This will include delving onto the somewhat intimidating world of social media analytics, including the extent to which we are engaging with our targeted audience of USask students and on which platforms. This will be a ‘test-run’ of sorts so we can gauge the response rate response and improve upon it for the end of project evaluation in August. The process questions focus on how the audience is accessing the videos, how many they have watched, and their likes and dislike. The outcome questions link back to our therapy dog program goals to see if they are being met online, including the therapy dogs providing a sense of connection, comfort and support, and if so, how this is being accomplished in online. They will also be asked if they learned a pandemic-specific mental health self-care tip, which as mentioned above, is our other online therapy dog program goal.  

What we don’t need research to tell us is that the key ingredient to what makes ours and others’ on-line events successful is the therapy dogs and handlers. The genuine care our handlers have for their community, and their dogs, comes across as authentically on-line as it does in person. Their commitment and creative efforts to share their canine companions and connect with their community is in itself a powerful message in these isolating times during COVID-19. People have asked our team about what’s next? That’s a difficult question to answer at the best of times with a research program – we are always responding and expanding based on what we and others find. And this is an especially difficult question to answer during an unpredictable pandemic! What we do know for certain is that our therapy dog program will remain on-line come September as our campus community will primarily be teaching and learning remotely. We will continue to have the evidence direct us in how best to offer therapy dogs as an important community service to our campus and beyond. We will do our best to locate expertise to help guide us about the most effective ways on social media to share our on-line visits for participants and that are comfortable and safe for our therapy dog teams. I think we can all agree that technology can be intimidating and social media frustrating at times. Just remember through it all – a therapy dog KARES about you!

This card is handed our as a memorabilia when Dr. Chalmers and I do visits with our therapy dogs.

You can learn more about our on-line therapy dog program, and the research team behind it (Ben Carey, Alexandria Pavelich, Maryellen Gibson and Drs. Holly McKenzie and Linzi Williamson), by visiting www.therapydogs.ca.