Concordia welcomes four-legged friends

Blue Ribbon Canine Centre offers puppy therapy to battle students’ exam stress

Concordia University is working with the Blue Ribbon Canine Centre to offer free, drop-in animal therapy sessions on Nov. 30 and Dec. 6 intended to help students cope with exam period stress and anxiety.

At the Webster Library on the Sir George Williams (SGW) campus and the Vanier Library on the Loyola campus, students will be able to interact with trained, vaccinated therapy dogs from the Dorval-based animal training centre. Since the organization is run exclusively by volunteers, their animal therapy services are free.

While these sessions “are not designed as a formal response to mental health on campus,” according to Concordia spokesperson Mary-Jo Barr, there is significant research to suggest that animal therapy can have positive effects on both mental and physical health.

According to Theresa Bianco, a psychology professor at Concordia, research shows animal therapy can lead to an increased release of hormones, such as serotonin and oxytocin, which are responsible for improving mood.

“Anecdotally, you hear students say they’re having a great time, and they report that [the sessions] ease their stress,” she said. “If you look at the research, studies demonstrate that it’s improving mood, it’s reducing stress and anxiety and increasing positive thoughts.”

Animal therapy can also be beneficial to physical health by lowering blood pressure, diminishing physical pain and improving cardiovascular health, according to UCLA Health.

Harriet Schleifer, the co-founder of Blue Ribbon and one of its trainers, said she has observed the positive effects of university puppy therapy sessions first-hand.

“[Students] come in with all this stressed body language, and the next thing you know everybody’s laughing and relaxing. It’s a huge stress reliever,” she said. “They’ll say even thinking about the puppies will help them feel better. We’ve had the students tell us they were going home for the holidays but delayed it to be able to see the dogs again.”

Graphic by Zeze Le Lin

According to Schleifer, therapy animals begin intensive training as puppies that lasts between seven weeks and seven months. In addition to traditional obedience and agility training, puppies receive specific training related to the settings they typically work in. For example, puppies are trained not to touch any objects on the the ground since, in hospital settings, they could encounter dropped medications or medical objects. Additionally, they are trained to move away from people who are walking to avoid becoming a safety hazard when they visit elderly people. However, Schleifer said she believes properly training handlers is as important as training the dogs, if not more.

“They learn to recognize stress in the dog and learn to tell when they should take the dog out of a situation, for whatever reason,” Schleifer said. “I train the handlers and I tell them, ‘You are the dog’s butler and chauffeur. They know what they’re doing, just let the dog work.’”

To ensure safety during the sessions, the dogs are leashed and accompanied by a handler.

When they’re not hosting exam period therapy sessions at Concordia and McGill University, Blue Ribbon dogs visit elementary schools, hospitals and retirement homes. For example, the Blue Ribbon Canine Centre offered animal therapy sessions at shelters and community centres in the West Island following the damaging floods last May.

In addition to helping students manage their anxiety and stress, Bianco said she believes animal therapy can help people adjust to traditional counselling methods and even overcome a fear of animals.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution,” Bianco said. “But it’s terrific to offer it to students. It provides the opportunity for students to choose how much interaction they feel comfortable with and can definitely improve well-being.”

Feature photo by Kirubel Mehari

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