Shona Nichols and her certified therapy dog Skoki are helping University of Alberta students to de-stress, one pet at a time.
Nichols, an assistant lecturer for the U of A’s English Language School through the faculty of education, also works in the Student Engagement Centre. Since October 2023, she’s been conducting the therapy program, bringing Skoki on Mondays.
On January 22, the Education Student Association partnered with the Pets Assisting with Student Success (PAWSS) program to host a special event in the Education Atrium. This event allowed students to meet some therapy pets while connecting with other students.
The PAWSS program is based out of MacEwan University, where “staff, students, and community volunteers [bring] well-behaved, well-trained dogs onto campus for student wellness,” Nichols said. According to Nichols, the program helps students by reducing their stress, increasing their feelings of community, and improving their well-being.
Skoki was certified through the program at MacEwan, but appears mostly at the U of A.
Nichols “saw an opportunity for a program that would make the lives of students and staff better on campus”
According to Nichols, there is research regarding the effect of therapy dogs on post-secondary students. For multiple reasons, therapy dogs can particularly impact international students, Nichols said.
“[Therapy dogs have] been found to increase feelings of well-being, hope, connection, and decrease feelings of loneliness and homesickness for international students.” According to Nichols, these events help international students connect with other students within the university community.
Pet therapy events provide “opportunities to have informal conversations about the dog, about their home, [and] what makes them happy.”
Since beginning the weekly program, Nichols said she’s seen “all sorts of people coming in.”
“We had the security guards coming, PhD students, staff, and our students. It created a sense of community where everyone came together and could have those informal conversations,” Nichols said.
Before she adopted Skoki, Nichols already had experience conducting pet therapy. When she began working at the U of A’s English Language School, she “saw an opportunity for a program that would make the lives of students and staff better on campus.”
“I had done pet therapy with my previous dog. I just saw the benefits,” Nichols said. “When we would go into a room, people would light up. They’d come talk to me, make eye contact, engage, and have conversations.”
“It’s just taking a moment to yourself and appreciating animals and getting to pet them. [It helps] destress me,” student says
According to Nichols, many students enjoy petting and doing tricks with Skoki. Others enjoy chatting with people at the events. Education students Kayla Letki and Kolby Russell have attended pet therapy events in the past and reaped the rewards.
“It’s just taking a moment to yourself, appreciating animals, and getting to pet them. [It helps] destress me,” Letki said.
Russell recognized the science behind pet therapy events. She enjoys “the serotonin you get from just a little connection once in a while.”