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Dogs lend their paws at Saskatoon vaccine clinic

Research shows that dogs help lessen stress
Members of St. John Ambulance pet therapy team were present at the Prairieland Park vaccination clinic to assist anxious individuals in getting their COVID-19 shots.

SASKATOON — People who feel uncomfortable seeing a needle every immunization had a special friend to lean on as St. John Ambulance brought several therapy dogs to lend their paws in the walk-in COVID-19 vaccination clinic by the Saskatchewan Health Authority at Hall E of the Prairieland Park.

SJA had their therapy dogs on deck to become cute distractions to anxious persons from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursday and will again be at the said facility from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Saturday to again do their job of comforting patients who are either getting their first dose or completing their COVID-19 vaccine.

SJA Provincial Coordinator Stephanie Peachey said they had been doing the pet therapy program close to 20 years in Saskatchewan.

“At present we have around 120 pet therapy teams — the handler (human) and the dog. So, we call them the pet therapy team. This is also our first visit since March 2020, pre-COVID.”

Ben Carey, an SJA coordinator and evaluator, added they also conduct online visits through the University of Saskatchewan.

“We’ve been conducting visits through ZOOM, online, for the students. We have also been doing some live events and Facebook updates. Like exposing people with their dogs as much as we can virtually while keeping everyone safe.”

SJA also visit hospitals, nursing homes, airports, correctional facilities, University of Saskatchewan, and Saskatchewan Polytechnic. SJA, a non-profit organization that operates in other provinces, visits 61 different organizations regularly in Saskatoon alone.

Dr. Colleen Dell, a University of Saskatchewan Department of Sociology Professor, said they have been doing research in the different places they visit on the benefits of having pets as partners in therapy.

“We’ve done research at the Methadone Clinic, the university, and everywhere else to find that people feel supported with the help of dogs.”

“If one is stressed, they find that the dogs help de-stress. We’ve also done a number of studies in the hospitals we’ve seen that dogs provide the similar kind of situation - that they provide a positive distraction. It’s like, ‘I’m going to get vaccinated’ but the dog is there to be a distraction, to lessen your anxiety towards needles.”

Dell, who is also a trained therapy dog handler, added that having a dog in places like a vaccination clinic helps people remember the good things that happened in their lives.

“It can facilitate remembering some of the good things, those feelings that we have. The other thing we discovered through our research, like in the prisons, is that dogs don’t judge.”

And that is the duty of the eight dogs that SJA brought at Prairieland, help kids and even adults who feel uncomfortable seeing needles or getting vaccinated relax. People who are afraid of needles only need to ask an SHA staff that they want to have a therapy dog present and a member of SJA pet therapy team will be there to assist them.

“They get to pet the dog. We bring dogs to places where people are the most vulnerable, like hospitals and vaccine clinics. Places that people don’t want to be in because they can be scared. And the dogs help take you out of that headspace of being scared of all in your surroundings. It gives you that unbridled comfort and support.”

Dell added that there are biological things that are happening when you are in a presence of a dog.

“Research has shown that it can reduce our heart rate if you are patting a dog and it increases our oxytocin, the feel-good love hormone, and decreases cortisol, the stress hormone.”

“That’s been proven in science. So, there’s evidence behind why we’re here. I think it is also a fabulous time to do it, especially as people who are hesitant and have not been vaccinated yet.”