USask professor Dr. Holly McKenzie (PhD) with her Great Dane, Opal, a therapy dog in training. (Photo: Maki Fotos)

Examining how therapy dogs support well-being

A University of Saskatchewan (USask) sociology researcher is studying how St. John Ambulance therapy dog-handler teams can further support people—including Indigenous people—dealing with substance use concerns and/or mental health concerns when visiting online, and in the future, in-person.

Dr. Holly McKenzie’s (PhD) new research project is supported by a $140,000 Banting Post-Doctoral Fellowship. McKenzie is a community-engaged and patient-oriented researcher and has been working alongside her Great Dane, Opal, who is a therapy dog in training. McKenzie’s main supervisor is Dr. Colleen Dell (PhD), the Centennial Enhancement Chair in One Health and Wellness, and an advisory group that includes patient and family advisors, therapy dog handlers, health care decision-makers, researchers, a Knowledge Keeper and a local dog trainer.

McKenzie said a study like this is relevant to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people who deal with mental health concerns and/or substance use concerns.

 “I’m trying to make sure that Indigenous peoples’ experiences and perspectives are included in this project,” said McKenzie. “One of the ways I’m doing that is taking guidance from a Knowledge Keeper, Betty McKenna, who is from the Anishnaabae Nation, Shoal River Band, and is a member of the advisory group.”

In previous research led by Dell, people reported feeling supported and comforted by visiting therapy dogs. Studies have also demonstrated visits with therapy dogs lower people’s levels of stress and anxiety in various settings. Therapy dog visiting programs do not replace essential health programs or services but rather complement them.

When McKenzie began her Post-Doctoral Fellowship, her plan was to study how St. John Ambulance therapy dog-handler teams support and comfort women, including Indigenous women, who seek assistance for mental health concerns and/or substance use concerns at Saskatoon’s Royal University Hospital emergency department. The hospital was the first in Canada in 2016 to introduce therapy dogs to support people waiting for emergency services.

Due to the pandemic, McKenzie had to adjust her project. In March 2020, St. John Ambulance suspended in-person therapy dog visits nationally, with some programs, such as USask’s PAWS Your Stress, transitioning online. In-person therapy dog visiting is still suspended.

She worked with the project’s advisory group to figure out ways to achieve similar aims to what she had originally planned, even though in-person therapy dog visiting was suspended. 

The redesigned project focuses on how policies, training and resources can facilitate therapy dog handlers’ support of people. This project also considers therapy dog welfare and handler well-being.

McKenzie said the inclusion of Indigenous peoples’ perspectives within this study is important, as research has shown that a service or support that is effective for the population overall, may not be true for Indigenous peoples, who are a large part of Saskatchewan’s population.

Other Indigenous members of the advisory group include patient and family advisor Paulete Poitras, health policy expert Cassandra Opikokew Wajuntah, and addictions expert Sharon Acoose.

Due to the pandemic and having to redesign the study, McKenzie’s project has been delayed. She is currently conducting interviews with therapy dog handlers and service providers as well as reviewing policies. She plans to hold a community presentation in the fall when she will release her findings through community products like infographics, training resources or policy checklists. She will also publish the results in academic journals.

Click here to read more on the project and find results.

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