Therapy dog helps MSVU students

Oscar the Shih Tzu is the newest staff member at MSVU’s counselling services

Oscar mixes with students every Thursday afternoon on his hour-long rounds. Photo: Geordan Omand

There’s a new top dog at Mount Saint Vincent University.

His name is Oscar. He’s a fluffy, white, two-year-old, hypoallergenic Shih Tzu and since February he has been lending a paw and cuddling with clients at the Mount’s counselling services.

“It’s a totally different mood on campus since Oscar’s been here,” says Marriam Abou-El-Haj, a Mount counsellor and the person responsible for pulling the strings to get Oscar on campus.

“What I’ve found is that he’s really de-stigmatized counselling,” says Abou-El-Haj. “Because that’s one of the big things with mental health … especially in this age range where you can see a lot of real issues come up.”

Mental illness is on the rise in universities and colleges across North America, as reported in a recent Maclean’s magazine article, “Campus crisis: The broken generation.” The Mental Health Commission of Canada estimates three quarters of mental health disorders appear by age 24. One in three students report not being able to function properly due to depression.

Animal-assisted therapy is an innovative approach being used to combat this troubling trend. Research shows that animals can lower stress, decrease blood pressure, relieve anxiety and even prolong life.

The positive impact at the Mount is easy to see.

“Everybody loves Oscar,” says Abou-El-Haj. “It’s all smiles and happiness when they see him.”

As the expression goes, every dog has its day. And for Oscar that day is Thursday, the day he volunteers.

“It’s just taken off – my Thursdays are packed,” says Abou-El-Haj. “People call and say I want to come in on Oscar day.”

After a busy morning of counselling sessions, Oscar dons his specially-tailored Mount hoodie for an hour of rounds on campus. He even has his own university staff identity card.

Courtney Williams, who works at the on-campus gym, has enjoyed visits from Oscar for the past five months.

“He just brings smiles to everybody’s face.”

Mount counsellor Marriam Abou-El-Haj started the “Cuddles with Oscar” program in February. Photo: Geordan Omand
Mount counsellor Marriam Abou-El-Haj started the “Cuddles with Oscar” program in February. Photo: Geordan Omand

Oscar is trained for this kind of work. He’s one of about 260 therapy dogs in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island certified through the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program. Therapy dogs mostly visit seniors in retirement homes and hospitals and are used to help children learn to read.

“It really just brightens their day,” says Jaime Walker, the program’s co-ordinator for St. John Ambulance. “Having someone come in to see them really means a lot.”

Mark Grant is a director with Therapeutic Paws of Canada, a non-profit therapy animal organization and he sees the positive impact of animals in people’s lives.“They provide joy,” he says.

Another part of Therapeutic Paws’ work involves bringing dogs to universities like McGill and the University of Ottawa to help students relax during exam season.

As Oscar does his afternoon rounds, a small group of psychology students fawn over the furry, Ewok look-alike.

“I feel better already,” says student Emad Talisman, laughing, after a brief cuddle.

In Abou-El-Haj’s eyes, the key is the “unconditional love” Oscar offers.

“(It) doesn’t matter who you are,” she says. “He just wants to curl up, snuggle right up, fall asleep, show you that you’re wonderful and that it’s going to be OK.”




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