After watching a documentary about integrating therapy animals into educational facilities, registered nurse Linda Shaw got an idea she couldn’t shake. As the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT)’s student well-being facilitator in the student counselling department, she realized the therapeutic value a dog might bring to post-secondary students on campus.
“I thought, wouldn’t it be nice to have an extra support system for students who feel physically or mentally unwell?” says Shaw.
So, Shaw put her registered nurse skills to work and began her research. One of her first steps was to take an online Animal-Assisted Therapy certificate through Oakland University school of nursing. The course included a capstone project in which Shaw shared why she would like to integrate an animal program, what it would cost, what it would look like and how she would measure the outcomes. Then she pitched the idea to NAIT.
“When Flynn was a puppy, I was allowed to bring him in for training. Word of mouth led to people showing up at my office seeking puppy therapy,” recalls Shaw.
That was three years ago, and Flynn’s been a permanent NAIT wellness dog ever since.
Last year, Shaw received a grant from Alberta Blue Cross to conduct research about Flynn’s impact on students. She proposed the “PAWS For a Break” program: Shaw and Flynn would visit campus locations and students could relax and talk to Shaw while opening the lines of communications about resources such as student counselling, learning services and the health office.
Shaw worked with NAIT researchers and the ethics board to survey students using rating scales after spending time with Flynn. The final report indicated that the shift in mood and well-being was overwhelmingly positive.
Shaw says many NAIT students are international students who come from countries where dogs aren’t considered safe animals to be around. But Flynn helps introduce these students to the Canadian lifestyle, where dogs are a valued part of families.
“I have many great stories about people who’ve never touched a dog because they’re afraid,” says Shaw. “So I coach them about what do: ‘his tail is wagging, that means he’s happy to see you. If you touch him, he’ll turn his head toward you, but don’t be scared; he’s just looking to see what’s touching him.’ It’s a great way to build their confidence around animals.”
Shaw says they pet Flynn, then take pictures and send them to their families back home.
“It helps normalize dogs, which is helpful in a culture where we spend more money on dogs than ourselves!” says Shaw.
In the counselling department, Shaw informs students about health and community resources.
“I don’t flood them with resources, but I assess their need and guide them to support resources,” Shaw says. “I connect them to resources that will help them stay in school and complete their chosen career path.”
Shaw helps with everything from housing to bursaries. But Flynn works his own magic.
“I might have initiated the program, but Flynn’s the one who does the work. If he didn’t make such positive connections with the students and staff, this program wouldn’t be so successful,” says Shaw.
She explains that students describe Flynn’s gaze as though a person is looking back at them – in a way that isn't threatening. Shaw says in the counselling office, he will go to a person who is having a difficult time and either lay at their feet or put his head in their lap, as though he’s trying to ground them.
“Because of Flynn, students with health issues feel the office is a safe place to come when they start to feel overwhelmed,” says Shaw. “A distraught or emotional student calms down when they pet Flynn, and gets to a point where they can make a plan and move forward. He helps them get ready to figure out what to do next.”
Shaw feels proud when she hears students describe Flynn as “our dog,” as she senses a feeling of ownership and value in their words.
“A few years ago, I was walking with Flynn down a hallway and an instructor saw us. ‘What does a dog really do? Why do we need a dog here?’ he said,” describes Shaw. “It was perfect timing. At that moment, a group of health students came down the hallway and went right to Flynn, saying ‘This is just what we needed! We just had an exam!’ They were all laughing and smiling and saying how much better they feel.”
“The instructor said ‘Never mind! I get it,’” laughs Shaw.
Now, instructors invite Shaw and Flynn to classrooms.
“I talk about stress and anxiety related to presentations and group work. We discuss what stress is and how your brain functions under stress. Then I teach the students simple techniques to recognize signs of their body under stress, so they can address it,” says Shaw.
Before presentation time, Shaw visits classrooms and students pet Flynn at the front of the room, which makes them more relaxed for their presentations.
Shaw shared a story about a student who recently told her that a few years ago, he decided to quit school. He packed up his stuff and was walking out when he ran into Shaw and Flynn in the hall.
“He said, ‘You stopped and talked to me. I was petting Flynn and you told me where I could go to get support. Instead of leaving NAIT, I went to that resource. Not only did I graduate, but I’m back for a second program.’”
As a registered nurse, Shaw says she’s learned to ask the right questions to open the door to what’s happening with a person, and that you just might change how they’ll respond or what their actions will be.
Linda Shaw and Flynn the labradoodle also volunteer with St. John’s Ambulance Animal Therapy program and at numerous NAIT events. They’re a common sight at the Stollery Children’s Hospital.
By Crystal Komanchuk