UFV’s therapy dog helps students through tough times

UFV’s therapy dog helps students through tough times

It’s not unusual to see a dog on the campus green at the University of the Fraser Valley — UFV has a fairly generous pets-are-welcome policy. Dogs have even been seen wandering campus hallways and hanging around offices. But Macbeth, a six-year-old golden retriever, not only has the run of the campus; he also has his own office and job title.

Clinical counsellor Dawn Holt and her office partner Mac, who is trained by the Assistance Dogs Society, work in UFV’s Student Services department.

Mac is a fully-trained, registered therapy dog from the Pacific Assistance Dogs Society (PADS) who works at UFV with clinical counsellor Dawn Holt. When she was working on her master’s degree, Holt’s thesis explored the attachment between working dogs and their handlers. The more she learned, the more she knew she wanted to incorporate a therapy dog into her clinical work. Once Mac was trained, and Holt had completed the extensive application process, the pair was placed together.

When Holt was hired at UFV in 2006, she was delighted to learn that she could bring Mac along as part of the package. It was vital to her that he be accepted by the university; because he was fully trained by PADS, the organization would have broken up their partnership if he was not working as a therapy dog.

While the use of therapy dogs in clinical practices is not as uncommon as it once was, Mac, who is registered federally and provincially, remains unique because he is the only therapy dog in Canada, possibly all of North America, working in a university setting. Most therapy dogs work in hospitals, residential homes, and other health-related facilities.

“Studies have shown that during interaction with a therapy dog, a person’s blood pressure can decrease, their heart rate can become regulated, they can focus their breathing,” Holt explains. “In therapy, all counsellors have many different tools that they use. Mac is one of my tools.”

As department head of UFV’s Counselling Services, Holt sees a full gamut of students, staff, and faculty. Hired primarily for the students, she hears stories of stress, financial concerns, relationship worries, and mental health issues.

“Coming to university is a life-changing experience and sometimes students have trouble adjusting to all that is going on. A student might experience a personal crisis or might be struggling with their school work,” she explains. “Counsellors work with students who live with mental health issues, relationship concerns, family crises, and myriad other life stresses that can interfere with their studies.”

There are tactile benefits that come from working with a therapy dog. Holt says clients are welcome to sit where they want, and as close to the dog as they choose. Often they sit on the floor, with Mac’s head on their laps. Almost always, there is touching — gentle strokes, an embrace, a rub between Mac’s ears, or a hearty pat. Holt says any barriers naturally disappear as a client caresses the dog’s ears, tickles his chin, or heartily rubs his back.

If a person doesn’t want to use Mac, then he sits quietly in Holt’s office while she works with the client. Mostly, however, he is in high demand and people come to Student Services asking only to speak to ‘the lady with the dog’. Sometimes, she notes, a student might drop by who is living in residence and has left a beloved pet at home. They aren’t actually looking for counselling or any advice, but just need the company of a dog for a short while.

“There is a certain amount of unconditional acceptance that he offers people. He is a comfort.”

When Mac is on the job, he wears his public access jacket — alerting people that he is a working dog and people should check with Holt before they approach. When he’s not working, he’s always happy to receive a scratch between the ears.

“The jacket is part of his official ID, because we have public access to most places,” Holt explains. “Mac’s entire demeanour changes when I put his jacket on him. He knows he is going to work and he truly loves it.”

Holt and Mac are currently on maternity leave (Holt recently welcomed a new baby daughter Olivia) and will be back at work on UFV’s Abbotsford campus in May 2011.