Therapy Dogs Online – How Carey & IWDA’s Dell Maintained Therapy Programs During Covid

Since the height of Covid, many people’s preference for medical visits is through online interaction.

So why not therapy dogs? The University of Saskatchewan, through its Paws Your Stress Therapy Dog program, co-founded by IWDA member Dr. Colleen Dell and with Ben Carey as Program Director, transitioned an entire program to online operation.

Paws Your Stress also works with St. John Ambulance in Canada to facilitate visits with therapy dogs.

“We have started going back to personal visits with our people,” said Carey during his IWDC 2021 presentation. “But we find there are still some who enjoy the online interaction.”

Carey has been fascinated by canine evolution for years, focusing much of his undergraduate learning on the evolution from wolves into dogs and how humans and dogs have co-evolved to form an incredibly symbiotic relationship. He took that human-animal bond into his current research work, focusing on how the lives of hospital patients, veterans, and others are enhanced, or changed by interacting with dogs.

Dell, Centennial Enhancement Chair of the One Health and Wellness program at the University of Saskatchewan, has been working with the PAWSitive Support Program for Veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and who Problematically Use Substances (SUAP). Carey began working with Dr. Dell on the pilot study of the SUAP project.

PAWS Your Stress, since its start in 2015, began by offering feelings of comfort and support on the University of Saskatchewan campus. The program has since, in conjunction with the university’s Peer Health center and the St. John’s Ambulance Therapy Program, expanded to the general Saskatoon community.

When Paws Your Stress was forced online by Covid-19 in March 2020, little was known whether therapy dog programs have similar benefits delivered digitally. Carey and Dell found out that it clicked. 

Multiple Zoom (online) spaces are set up with a variety of therapy dogs available, each with a handler. Clients are able to move between rooms as desired, without some of the pressures that face-to-face sessions entail: online sessions allow for anonymity for clients, convenience to access the program within one’s own home, and the flexibility to experience multiple dogs or sessions to the level of involvement the client desires, to name a few.

“It took a lot of work by all, including handlers and the dogs,” said Carey. “Every detail in planning all the online presentations had to be covered.”

Carey mentioned the online program had two goals: 

  • For student participants to connect virtually with therapy dogs towards feelings of comfort and support.
  • To increase students’ knowledge of pandemic-specific, evidence-informed mental health.

There were three key findings identified by the process:

  • How the online activities contributed to the program’s goals.
  • Best practices related to program personnel, handler training and support, and online expertise.
  • Working/therapy dog-specific ethical considerations. Specifically, what are the ethical concerns of transitioning a dog that was trained to do in-person therapy to an online format.

In a survey conducted in reference to the online visits by the therapy dogs – some posing on computers – 90 percent of clients said they felt comforted and 63 percent they felt loved.


By Jed Weisberger