Several factors influenced our team’s decision to offer the PAWS Your Stress Therapy Dog program in a virtual environment. To start, we recognized the stress the pandemic was having on individuals’ lives. Globally, people were also reporting an increased sense of isolation and loneliness as a consequence of physical distancing and lock down measures [21
]. At the same time, we learned that the Carleton University [23
] therapy dog program was broadcasting live on Instagram. This aligned with the adaptation of university classes and other services to an online format at USask and elsewhere. We also observed a social media content trend focussed on the comfort that companion animals were providing to humans during these unprecedented times, including increased adoptions from animal shelters [24
]. We knew as well that our handler teams were missing the opportunities to contribute to the community through their volunteer efforts, and that putting the planned expansion of the PAWS Your Stress program on hold was a disappointment to segments of the USask community. Finally, we considered that our entire community was experiencing the pandemic in an era of online communication.
Fortunately, the lead member of our team, Colleen Dell, also had some online therapy dog visiting experiences to draw upon. She has been managing an active therapy dog Facebook community of approximately 2000 followers for the past 7 years (@AnnaBelleSubiesAdventures). She is also the co-lead with Dr. Darlene Chalmers on a prison Canine Assisted Learning program, started in 2016, where bi-monthly video conference visits with participants take place following the in-person component of the program. Facilitating a virtual connection with therapy dogs was not entirely new to the team.
2.1. PAWS Your Stress Online Program
Our team began transitioning its in-person program to an online format by developing a website (www.therapydogs.ca
accessed on 22 March 2021) to serve as a central hub to collate our varied online activities, posting social media content, as well as sharing information about scheduled activities. We also expanded our existing and adopted new social media platforms, including Facebook and Facebook Live (@PawsYourStress), Instagram (PawsYourStress), Twitter (PawsStress), Flipgrid (https://flipgrid.com/therapydogs
accessed on 22 March 2021) and YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCktTwbHipNjEReDp9IahWhQ/videos
accessed on 22 March 2021). We intentionally chose online platforms that could store our program content to ensure we were participant centered; that is, meeting individuals where they are at, so they can view the content at their convenience. At all times, participants were encouraged to post questions and offer feedback. For this reason, Facebook and Instagram were specifically focussed on during the transition as we had an existing account with some followers to build upon. Facebook and Instagram were also experienced as popular social media on the university campus by our team and our program partner, Peer Health.
The recordings were cross-promoted on popular Facebook pages, including St. John Ambulance SK (7.2k followers), USask Peer Health (1k followers), and Colleen Dell’s Anna-Belle and Subie’s Adventures (2k followers) with hashtags (e.g., #OnlineTherapyDogs). Several of our therapy dog handlers cross-promoted our program on their Instagram, Twitter and Facebook accounts, and all team members and participants were encouraged to share the posts on their personal social media platforms. We also promoted the therapy dogs via internal USask communications. Efforts were also dedicated to advertising the visits to Saskatchewanians and other university therapy dog programs in Canada, including using paid Facebook advertisements, emails to social networks, press releases, and news articles (e.g., Saskatoon Star Phoenix, CTV Saskatoon) and which were picked up by various groups (e.g., Saskatchewan Health Authority, Yahoo News).
Our live and pre-recorded videos featured the therapy dogs and handlers engaging in various activities they regularly engaged in and linked these activities to an evidence-based pandemic-specific mental health self-care tip, such as going for a walk. Additional activities that the dogs and handlers engaged in ranged from a healthy food taste test between a therapy dog in training and a therapy dog, training with a Canadian Kennel Club recognized trainer, grooming for a dog show, taking photos outdoors, and a dog skin care tutorial. Rarely, if ever, were the dogs asked to engage in activities they were not already familiar with.
The Facebook live visits were on average 15 min, mirroring the typical length of a participant’s in-person therapy dog visit. The pre-recorded videos varied in length, with some as short as 2 min and were more of a greeting style. The Instagram videos were typically a maximum of 1 min, adhering to the site format, unless we uploaded to the specific Instagram TV feature. Several special videos were compiled of various canine companion animals of members of our team to advertise the program. There were also regular social media posts with photos of the therapy dogs staying healthy and active, and again linked with a positive and encouraging mental health message. It is important to note that in the period of time before we began the recordings, our team posted regularly on social media with updates from the therapy dog handler teams. These “check-ins” took the form of pictures and stories regarding what the dogs were up to while unable to visit in person. This was met with positive follower engagement. We also posted pre-recorded children’s stories read to therapy dogs by their handlers, in partnership with Scholastic Canada and authors Nicole Petroski and Jane Smith.
2.2. PAWS Your Stress Program Output, Evaluation and Reflection
As a university-based program, our team is well aware of the need and equipped to design and undertake planning and evaluation of the PAWS Your Stress Therapy Dog program, including during the rapid online transition. Given the novelty of the online program and urgency with which the pandemic was experienced, it was important to offer the programming swiftly, as well as undertake evaluation, and document our team’s reflections about key lessons learned.
Our PAWS Your Stress program output between 22 April and 31 July 2020 included:
39 pandemic-specific mental health videos;
10 storybook reading videos (English or French);
28 Facebook Live videos and 11 pre-recorded videos containing pandemic-specific mental health self-care tips;
One podcast episode with Be Well at USask (aired 22 May 2020);
One infographic co-designed and promoted with the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction and the Mental Health Commission of Canada, titled Coping with Stress, Anxiety, and Substance Use During COVID-19: How Animals Can Help.
There were nine additional book readings and 23 videos created between these dates, but they did not include pandemic-specific mental health tips. As such, they are not reflected on in this commentary.
A combined process-outcome evaluation followed by a needs assessment was undertaken over a three-month period to determine whether our team’s activities contributed to achieving the program’s goals. That is, we wanted to know whether program participants: (1) experienced feelings of love, comfort, and support; and (2) learned about pandemic-specific mental health self-care knowledge. Contrary to the program’s history, we separated the terms love and comfort for this evaluation to respond to the unique on-line nature of the program and increased awareness of love being a therapy dog program goal since it was incepted in 2015. Unfortunately, due to time constraints based on our COVID-specific funding, we were unable to compare multiple time points to determine participant change. As such, we only assessed perceptions/opinions at a single time point. Quantitative and qualitative data were collected from the target population, USask students and community, as well as participating Saskatchewanians, with two online questionnaires (2 and 4 months after the inception of the online program; questionnaires available 8 to 19 June 2020 and 10 to 27 July 2020, respectively). Given the online and public nature of the program, it was not feasible to exclude non-USask community members from participating, although their participation was determined to be limited. We recognize that our on-line sampling approach was not ideal, but it is what we had access to doing at the time. Human Research Ethics Board approval was not required given the evaluative focus of our work.
The first process-outcome evaluation questionnaire was designed to assess participant opinion and experiences with the PAWS Your Stress online program. The questionnaire was accessible via Facebook, Instagram posts/stories and through the therapydogs.ca home webpage, and a total of 94 participants completed it, nearing our anticipated goal of 100. Most participants were registered students (26%), 18–25 years old (23%), self-identified as a woman (92%), resided in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (65%), and currently had a pet (88%). In brief, we found the following: Related to Goal 1, participants were asked using a 5-point Likert-type scale (1 = strongly disagree to 5 = strongly agree) whether they felt comforted, loved by, connected to, and supported by the therapy dogs online. We decided to include the concept of connection given the growing emergence of it in the AAI field (e.g., informed by growing attention to the human–animal bond) and its possible linkage to memories. The majority of participants strongly or somewhat agreed that they felt comforted by (90%), loved by (63%), connected to (86%), and/or supported by (83%) the therapy dogs. Participants were also asked using a 5-point Likert-type scale (1 = A lot less to 5 = A lot more), compared to other sources of connection, love, comfort, and support in their lives, how much did they experience these feelings generally from watching the therapy dogs online. Most participants reported that they experienced these feelings a little bit more (39%) or about the same (30%) from watching the therapy dogs online (“Human–animal bonds are there whether online or in-person”—participant). In order to feel more connection, love, comfort, and/or support from the therapy dogs online, participants suggested providing more information about the dogs (“It would be nice to know their birthdays and favourite toys”—participant) and having the dogs engage more and in different activities (“Learn tricks as suggested by viewers”—participant). Related to Goal 2, most participants (68%) reported “yes” to learning about pandemic-specific mental health self-care tips from the handlers and therapy dogs online (Yes, No, Unsure response options). Using a 5-point Likert-type scale (1 = strongly disagree to 5 = strongly agree), participants were asked whether they were more aware about evidence-informed, pandemic-specific mental health self-care knowledge after watching the online videos and whether they were using the tips they learned from the online videos. The majority of participants strongly or somewhat agreed that they were more aware about (83%) and were using (85%) the pandemic-specific mental health self-care tips from the therapy dog online videos. We also asked participants what made the pandemic-specific mental health self-care tips easy for them to apply. Participants indicated that the mental health tips were easy for them to apply because they felt inspired by the video content (“Watching nice landscapes and houses encouraged me to walk more around the neighbourhood and other areas”—participant), and also identified them as good reminders (“They were reminders to take breaks and take care of yourself”—participant). The tips were recognized as simple, clearly explained, affordable, and attainable (“They were not complex. Rather, they were put in simple, plain words and ideas”—participant). While many individuals noted that they needed to figure out for themselves how to increase their motivation and the likelihood that they would apply the self-care tips (“I think I was doing what I could already. The therapy dogs were a break in my day that often made me smile”—participant), some suggested that the tips needed to be communicated differently (e.g., more enthusiasm, tailored to specific populations, etc.) and that even more or different tips could be offered (“Reinforcement of their importance. Perhaps in subsequent videos, getting the same dogs to reinforce how those specific tips help them or how they are already practicing or applying the tips”—participant).
The second needs assessment questionnaire assessed participant needs and preferences regarding program implementation to help inform future programming. The questionnaire was again advertised through Facebook, Instagram, and the therapydogs.ca home page, and had a total response of 372 participants. We anticipate the increased response compared to the first survey was due to broader awareness and engagement with www.therapydogs.ca
(accessed on 22 March 2021). Most participants were full-time students (50%), between 21 and 25 years old (26%), self-identified as a woman (82%), and currently had a pet (72%). Findings from this questionnaire also supported the two main outcomes we sought to measure. In line with Goal 1, participants were asked using a checklist of possible response options (e.g., stress reduction, loneliness, learn about the therapy dogs, etc.) why they want to visit with the therapy dogs online. Participants primarily visited the therapy dogs online to reduce stress (48%), to learn about the therapy dogs’ lives (37%), and because they missed the therapy dogs (29%) (“Just seeing the dogs do their thing brings me joy”—participant). There was no specific data collected in our second questionnaire pertaining to our Second Goal about increasing pandemic-specific knowledge, however, 16% (58) of respondents indicated that they wanted to visit the therapy dogs online “to learn how to stay healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic” [29
] (p. 7).
Reflecting upon these evaluation outcomes and our team’s unique 14-week implementation and delivery of the PAWS Your Stress Therapy Dog program online, prompted us to reflect on the key lessons learned. Consequently, we are motivated to continue to offer the program virtually, as well as consider how it could be improved to meet the needs of our target USask population. The key lessons we learned are in the areas of program personnel needs, handler training and support requirements, and online programming prerequisites. This combined understanding is informing our current activities with the virtual program and should be of interest to other therapy dog programs transitioning online.