Helping animals help students

Apr 7 2017
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Certified wellness animals offer a new tool to battle student stress

IMAGE_STORY_PAWSS

Andrea Chute, assistant professor in the Bachelor of Science in Nursing program, with her certified wellness dog Gizmo. 

The (hopefully) final flakes of snow in the forecast and increasingly longer and warmer days may feel like surefire signs of spring, but for university students they’re also clues that final exams are looming. And the mad dash to finish assignments, papers and group projects can cause stress levels to rise in step with the season’s thermometer readings.

What better time to share news about a new team of furry stress-busters about to arrive on campus?

Gizmo (pictured above), the first member of what will become a team of certified wellness animals, is at the heart of a pet project led by Bachelor of Science in Nursing faculty members Andrea Chute and Melanie Neumeier. Set to officially launch in Fall 2017, Pets Assisting with Student Stress (PAWSS) will offer regularly scheduled one-hour, individual or small-group appointments that students from any program at the university can book in advance online.

Based out of the cozy Home Care Lab in the Robbins Health Learning Centre, PAWSS was created in response to growing stress levels nursing faculty members were seeing in their classrooms.

“In the nine years I’ve been teaching at MacEwan, it seemed like student stress levels were building as each year went by,” says Andrea. “In 2015, it started on the very first day of my first-year Nursing Practice Foundations course. Students were only a few hours into their program and were already overwhelmed about assignments, midterms and how they were going to be evaluated.”

Focusing on learning isn’t easy when your stress is at a fever pitch, says Andrea, so she teamed up with her colleagues to find out the levels and categories of the stress students were experiencing—and to look for solutions. After digging into nursing student stress levels with a survey in Fall 2016, the four faculty members ran a university-wide student stress study open to the entire MacEwan student body in early 2017.

The results of both surveys are shaping the PAWSS programs, providing useful information for other student services on campus, and informing a variety of research projects set to begin this fall that will look at how animal-assisted interventions impact student stress and learning.

IMAGE_STORY_PAWSS_2Scheduling your puppy/kitty time

If the lineups at SAMU’s PAWS for a Study Break events are any indication, the biggest challenge for PAWSS could be keeping up with demand. But faculty members say they are ready, and are aiming to make the program self-sustaining.

“We have had a lot of interest from faculty members and students who want to certify their pets as wellness animals and volunteer with the program,” says Melanie. “We expect to be very busy initially, but when students realize that the animals will be here every single week and that they can make appointments, things should settle down into a regular pattern.”

Gizmo, Andrea’s dog, is already taking a limited number of scheduled appointments; faculty member Sheila Hordal’s three-legged wellness dog, Bazzinga, could also make an appearance; and second-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing student Kristina Tardif is in the process of certifying her two cats, Cobalt and Onyx.

“I know that the unconditional love I get from my cats can help wash away a lot of the stress of the day,” she says. “I hope PAWSS gives other students that same little bright spot and something to look forward to when they’re feeling down or alone, or missing their own pets. There’s so much good that can come out of this.”

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