The closest thing I can get to experiencing owning a dog is babysitting my uncle’s little chihuahua, Kona.
My uncle lives in an apartment building, and over the summer they kept getting complaints because of Kona’s attachment issues. He is a 12-year-old dog who cannot be left alone for a long time. He will either cry the whole time my uncle’s gone, or pee/poop in the house, so they had to start to look for a babysitter.
I was the perfect candidate to take care of Kona. Since COVID-19 closed down all the post-secondary campuses, my schoolwork was moved online, and I was one of those who lost their job due to the pandemic, so I was home all the time. Little did we know that Kona would be a little blessing that changed my mental health.
Self-isolation was difficult for many people around the globe, and I was one that was struck pretty hard. Everything that I used to do was gone. I was stuck in my house with a bag of chips, watching everything on television just to fill the void of not being able to hangout with friends. But when Kona came into my life, I was blessed with a little companion, or, as I would say — my new best friend.
Not everyone who can benefit from being around a dog has access to one like I do with Kona. That is where organizations like PAWS Your Stress Therapy Dog Program can help.
It is a platform for anyone to engage with dogs online. The program started in 2015 at the University of Saskatchewan, focusing mainly on the mental health of students. Originally, it was an in-person program, but since the pandemic they have moved their program online for students to continue accessing the benefits of interacting with dogs.
The program consists of multiple different ways to interact with dogs: they have Zoom visits with dogs, provide videos of their dogs and read to you with dogs online. They also offer a guided relaxation program with a therapy dog and a yoga teacher that guides a relaxation exercise once a month on their Facebook page.
They post live Facebook videos that show dogs doing activities, like going to the groomers and getting exercise, that provide mental health tips through a dog’s lens. The dog handlers say that their dogs are doing something positive to themselves during this time, providing many examples for the viewers to repeat at home.
Ben Carey, the research facilitator and PAWS Your Stress Co-coordinator, says that the students who have benefited from their program have felt a “feeling of unconditional love and decreased feelings of loneliness and depression, a refreshed mind, decreased confusion and comfort.”
The dogs provide an outlet for many students to turn to because they are non-judgemental and many feel reduced pain when interacting with them.
Colleen Anne Dell, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan who started the PAWS Your Stress, says that dogs not only help with stress, but they release oxytocin in our brains and “this is why so many people look at cute kittens on the internet, they’re looking at all those pictures because they make us feel good.”
Most of the programming is available to the public, however the Zoom visits are mainly directed towards the students and staff at the U of S. But, if someone does want to schedule a meeting with a dog, they can request it through their website.
Dogs can provide a wide range of therapy to many individuals, even if you own them or not.
A peer-reviewed study done by the British Journal of Health Psychology found that the relationship between dogs and the psychological health in humans are related. It suggests that dogs can serve as a therapist to those in institutional settings such as hospitals, residential homes and prisons.
The study states that dogs can shield their owners from stress, because the action of stroking and/or talking to a dog has repeatedly been shown to decrease human blood pressure and heart rate. Therefore, the presence of a dog can help to lower autonomic responses to stressful situations.
Dogs have also been proven by the study to contribute to long standing physical health because dogs, unlike other animals, need to be exercised. Walking a dog daily has provided many owners with better physical health.
The study also found that the “presence of a residential dog in a nursing home resulted in ‘happier’, more ‘alert’ and more ‘responsive’ patients” because they facilitate social interaction between residents and got them moving, such as getting up to pet the dogs.
Dogs are a great resource for many to improve their physical and mental health and I have seen this happen first hand to myself.
Over the past year, Kona got me out of the house to take him on walks, making me get ready every day to do something physical. It was hard for me to do before, because I felt like I didn’t need to get ready since no one could see me anyways.
He also helped me through the times of feeling alone. My mom would work everyday and I was left alone, not able to talk to anyone, but when Kona came, I was able to hangout with him and play games such as tug of war and make him do tricks. Although these things might seem mundane, they were the highlights of my day because instead of watching TV all day, I was able to communicate with another living being.
Dogs are such blessings to people as they love more than anyone can. Whenever I hear Kona’s little pitter patter on the wooden floors, I am sparked with joy that he has arrived because I know he is coming to jump on my lap and snuggle his way into my blanket. He is that little nugget that I know I can turn to when I am in need for some comfort, because he will always come and snuggle with me when I need it the most.