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Transitioning a Therapy Dog Program Online: What’s In It For the Dog? – Presented by Ben Carey

Therapy dog programs on university campuses have become more commonplace in recent years, with literature suggesting that these programs may promote wellness and reduce stress amongst students. Less well-known is whether therapy dog programs have similar benefits online, especially given the Covid-19 pandemic. In response, this presentation focuses on findings from a program evaluation of the PAWS Your Stress Therapy Dog online program at the University of Saskatchewan.

Since 2015, PAWS Your Stress Therapy Dog program has offered student participants feelings of comfort and support on the University of Saskatchewan campus. In response to the COVID-19 Pandemic in March 2020, this program moved online with two goals: 1) for student participants to connect virtually with therapy dogs towards feelings of comfort and support; and 2) to increase student’s knowledge of pandemic-specific, evidence-informed mental health.

There were three key findings identified by the process and outcome evaluation related to: 1st, how the online activities contributed to the program’s goals; 2nd, best practices related to program personnel, handler training and support, and online expertise; and 3rd, 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. We conclude with how these findings have informed our work and how the evaluation will inform our online therapy dog program in the 2021 semester. For example, our initial program findings were used to fine-tune the program for the fall 2020 semester; implementing interactive zoom sessions with several therapy dog teams.

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