The healing power of furry friends

When exam season strikes, nothing is more distracting and funny than cat memes on the Internet.

But seeing a cat or dog in real life could actually help you focus more on your work. Your experience snuggling with a cocker spaniel or calico kitten is all part of the benefits associated with animal-assisted therapy.

Growing up, I had an adorable rabbit named Butterscotch and a cat named Magoo that helped me relax when I was stressed.

Holding and petting them helped me slow down my breathing and take my mind off my work. Sitting with them reminded me that I had a support system around me, even if it was just a rabbit twitching her nose or yawning.

In the Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy: Theoretical Foundations and Guidelines for Practice, edited by Aubrey H. Fine, the contributors define animal-assisted therapy as a form of therapy using an animal as a fundamental part of a person’s treatment.

This type of therapy can be found on campus through events such as Critters on Campus, which is hosted by the student-run organization Lost Paws.

Animal-assisted therapy, or AAT, is about more than service dogs who assist those who suffer from a visual impairment or disease. AAT is used to help treat people with stress-related issues, autism and social interaction issues, just to name a few.

This form of therapy also helps children with concentration difficulties in class, helping them to calm down and focus on work.

But what effect does this have on a stressed-out student?

In the Handbook, several studies are cited which prove the benefits animals have on humans. The act of petting or stroking a dog, one study shows, decreases blood pressure immensely and doubles the amount of oxytocin (the hormone generally responsible for feelings of happiness) produced in humans.

Animals have been used to make patients comfortable for many years, dating all the way back to Sigmund Freud, who had dogs in his office while children discussed their uncomfortable thoughts.

Generally, dogs and cats are used for AAT, but other animals including gerbils, rabbits, horses and dolphins have also produced positive effects in their patients.

Therapeutic Paws of Canada (TPOC) is one organization in Canada that’s making a positive impact on people’s lives using therapy pets. TPOC is a volunteer-based organization which was founded in 2002 and started with just six members.

It has since expanded into seven provinces with around 650 volunteers across Canada.

Allison Handelman is a volunteer with TPOC, along with her dog Frodo. She’s also the Team Leader for the Kingston and Napanee team.

“My route to TPOC is through the people that we got my dog Frodo from,” she said.

“Frodo’s father was a therapy dog.”

She has since become very involved in TPOC and describes her volunteers as a group of people who want to share the gift of the animals in their lives.

In order to volunteer with TPOC, applicants and their dogs must submit to a challenging screening process, overseen by certified evaluators.

“This test is a graduated evaluation,” she said, “and so we start off with basic elements and we move to more stressful tests that the handler and the dog or cat could encounter in a visiting situation.

“They’ll be looking for not only the handling ability of the person but the social skills of both the handler and the dog, or cat, and basically looking to see the overall temperament of the dog or cat.” Handelman said some of the scenarios in the screening process included volunteers mimicking the behaviours that could be exhibited by children or seniors to see how the handler and their pet react.

Although the screening process is difficult, Handelman said the rewards are amazing. She described taking her dog Frodo to visitations and said the residents often talk about their own pets or former pets.

“People will come together to pet Frodo when normally maybe they wouldn’t, you know. So he’s kind of a focal point, so you can create good conversations and happy memories,” she said.

“The happy memories are wonderful.” Bringing in animals to nursing homes also inspires physical movement to go see the animal and to touch or brush the pet, bringing about conversation and evoking good memories.

In TPOC’s Paws to Read Program, pets and their handlers are brought to classrooms in schools.

Handelman said when children read to the pets their self-esteem and confidence increases.

“[It] can help to improve their social skills because they’re interacting with the animal and it helps teach them respect for others.”

Handelman said she’s never received any negative feedback about any of her programs and is always in-demand from groups in the Kingston and Napanee area.

She also said she’d love to run a Paws Room — a program that partners with universities to provide emotional support during exam times — at Queen’s or other schools in the area, but the number of available teams makes it difficult to do so at the present time.

Fortunately, the ASUS organization Lost Paws runs a similar service to TPOC that runs twice during the year.

Their annual event, Critters on Campus, brings dogs from the Kingston Humane Society to the JDUC during exam season to help students relax during this high-stress time.

Jennifer Patton is an animal-lover herself, owning a dog, cat and two alpacas back home. Patton, ArtSci ’15, attended two of the Critters on Campus events and had nothing but positive feedback about the event.

“Before I attended the Critters on Campus event, I was definitely stressed out and worn down,” Patton told the Journal via email.

“I had a lot of essays and assignments due and I was a little worried about taking time out of studying to go hang out with an animal. After I left the event I definitely felt sort of a renewed and less stressed.”

In the end, it was well worth the study break.

“I do think that the time that I spent at Critters on Campus helped me to study more effectively. It was a really good break that I wouldn’t have taken otherwise but that I probably needed.” Patton said she’d be very happy to see more Critters on Campus events take place throughout the year.

“An exam or essay seems so incredibly important in that moment but crazily sometimes it only takes … a small break with a dog to realize that that exam isn’t the end of the world,” Patton said.

In an atmosphere where stress and anxiety can be so prevalent, especially among students who are new to the university lifestyle, introducing animals to campus can provide the calm environment students need.

Cuddling with a cute puppy or furry cat can provide the relaxation so many students need after stressful situations.

These therapeutic animals can also help students assuage the anxiety they might be feeling if they’re separated from their pets at home.

Leaving behind a pet at home isn’t easy, especially when they are so embedded in our daily routines.

Sadly, animal-assisted therapy isn’t for everyone. Some people find an animal’s presence to be an added stressor rather than the relaxing object they’re meant to be. Others may have allergies to certain types of animals.

For those who don’t have the financial means to care for their own pet, TPOC provides its programs free of charge as it’s completely volunteer-run. This way, everyone can benefit from their variety of programs.

The effects a registered therapy dog, animal from the Humane Society or even your own pet can have on your mental wellness are extraordinary.

As seen by studies, the addition of an animal to an uncomfortable or stressful situation can help decrease your blood pressure and increase your happiness.

Animal-assisted therapy is an excellent way to bring together those suffering from an issue with pets who provide the warm and loving support they need.

And what better way to relax than to pet a cuddly animal?

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