Treating Drug Addiction with Animal Assisted Therapy


AAI & Wellness Project












Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Canadian Research Initiative in Substance Misuse Grant

Our collaborative project builds on existing relations, extensive expertise and scholarly and practice-based experiences among a multi-disciplinary team that includes researchers, Indigenous Elders, decision makers, service providers, communications experts and individuals with lived experience. Our assembled team has a wealth of expertise in One Health, AAI, addiction, trauma and health/wellbeing, and many of our team members are already involved together in solid research partnerships.

Nominated principal applicants: Colleen Anne Dell & Darlene Chalmers
Research-focused team: Sharon Acoose, Allison Bokitch, Peter Butt, Andrew Field, Jennifer Gareau, James Gillett, Sue Nadon, Crystal Petryk, Nancy Poole, Joe Stookey, Hugh Townsend
Research assistants: Kate Dunn (completed August 2014), Alicia Husband, Chelsea Nickel, Betty Rohr
Practice-focused team: Russell Bone, Elder Campbell Papequash, Tammy Roberts, Nicole Schumacher, Cynthia Shorting,  Zoe Teed, Andrea Zwarich
Collaborators: Cheryl Araatoon, Gail Cartier, Randy Duncan, Elder Harry Francis, Douglass Freeman, Koralie Gaudry, Laurence Gaudry, Audrey Giles, Rita Hanoski, Josh Hagerud, Carol Hopkins, Karen Main, Stan Mlynczak, Ernie Sauve, Patricia Walker, Kathy Willerth, Rick Yount
Associates: Eileen Balcom-Vetillo, M.J. Barrett, Tasha Epp, Cassandra Hanrahan, Kate Hodgson, Michelle Lem, Christina Risley-Curtiss, St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog teams (Candice Zimmerman, Cathy Anderson, others).

Drug addiction is a serious health concern in Canada. Building on our growing community-based research team’s history of collaborative work, the aim of this project is to better understand how Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) can assist Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal youth and adults in their treatment for drug addiction. Many individuals who abuse drugs have traumatic life experiences and use drugs to help cope with the experiences. Research has shown that AAT can assist individuals in dealing with trauma and other mental health concerns, but not a lot has been done in the addictions field.

Based upon experiences with AAT, addictions and trauma, our aim is to develop a unique research project addressing all three fields together. Applying a One Health framework, which acknowledges the interdependent relationship between humans, animals and the environment to achieve optimal health & is attuned with an Indigenous paradigm, we undertook a literature review, site visits, collected data and hosted meetings to gain a better understanding of how dogs and horses assist in adult and youth residential facilities to achieve client wellness. We accounted for key elements of AAT as a treatment intervention for drug abuse: the client’s interaction with the program, the human handler, and the animal. The expertise of our diverse team members well-positioned us to undertake this project while adhering to specific ethical standards for working with animals, humans and Aboriginal people.

The results of the project will allow our community-based team to facilitate discussions about incorporating best practices into drug dependency intervention programs. Organizing our team to gain a comprehensive and collective understanding of AAT, trauma and drug abuse treatment will provide the necessary foundation to develop a stage II grant to cooperatively develop, validate, refine and deliver new treatment options with others.


As part of CIHR’s CRISM initiative, Colleen Dell (PI) and several members of our team were funded with Dr. Cameron Wild (NPI, U of Edmonton) and Dr. Dave Hodgins (PI, U of Calgary) and their teams to establish a regional Node dedicated to substance misuse interventions as part of the national CRISM network.

Funded in February, 2014, over the next 12 months our team: (1) reviewed knowledge documented in the literature and from Elders regarding the three key elements of AAT (human-animal-program/environment) as a drug intervention; (2) held meetings to develop reciprocal relationships and address our guiding project questions (see below); (3) established pre-and post-meeting communications via a virtual working space; (4) attended our intervention/demonstration sites (Calder Centre and Eagle’s Nest) and others; (5) undertook knowledge translation and dissemination activities through established mechanisms and expanded on these; and (6) confirmed a solid research partnership amongst our team members to in the future write up our Stage II proposal with a clear focus grounded in both the literature and practice-based expertise.


First Workplan Meeting at the CRISM Ottawa national gathering in Ottawa in February, 2014: (L to R) Andrew Field, Colleen Dell, James Gillett, Allison Bokitch, Darlene Chalmers


Client Focused

Canine Equine
Calder Addiction Treatment Center Cartier Farms – EAL Program
Family Treatment Centre Eagle’s Nest Youth Ranch
Heartland Health Region, Child and Youth Mental Health & Addictions One Arrow Equestrian Centre
Metis Addictions Council of Saskatchewan, Inc. – Saskatoon site Saskatoon Health Region, Adult Mental Health & Addictions
McMaster University – PAWS Your Stress Spirit Horse Ranch
Program of Legal Studies for Native People at the Native Law Centre in the College of Law Twisted Wire Ranch Cultural Horse Program
Regional Psychiatric Centre
Saskatoon Farmer’s Market
Saskatoon Health Region, Child and Youth Mental Health & Addictions
Saskatoon Health Region, Fire Within Group
Saskatoon Sexual Assault & Information Centre
University of Ottawa – PAWS Your Stress
University of Regina – PAWS Your Stress
University of Saskatchewan – PAWS Your Stress & Healthy Living Event
White Buffalo Youth Inhalant Treatment Centre

Our project is guided by the following questions, with the goals of developing actionable research questions:
How can human experiences of trauma, coped with through drug abuse, be addressed with the assistance of AAT?
Who should be involved in this, paying specific attention to the need for human service integration and evidence-based practice? What is the role of each of these participants?
How do the One Health and Indigenous paradigms guide us in developing our knowledge?
How do we address the welfare of the animal in AAT interventions?
How do we ensure our knowledge is shared with service providers and systems through an evolving knowledge translation and dissemination strategy?

How can animal assisted interventions build wellness among individuals with experiences of trauma, stress, and anxiety, coped with through the misuse of substances?

To gather understanding, our team addressed the general question of:  What health benefits do Animal Assisted Interventions (AAI) produce and are these similar to the benefits of companion animals? We are specifically gathering clients’ knowledge through canine and equine site-specific evaluations. The site-specific evaluations focus on the cross-cutting concepts of love and support and these are drawn from the companion animal, AAI and general wellness literature and the programs’ goals. All of our sites have clients who face influences of problematic substance use – stress, anxiety and/or trauma.

In addition, a service provider survey is being undertaken (with funding from the UofS One Health Development Grant) to measure social workers’ knowledge and perceptions about human-animal interactions, including exposure to information and levels of knowledge and integration of the human-animal bond into practice via the existing  Social Work Practice and Human Animal Interactions Survey. It will also measure awareness and knowledge of the key concepts and document prairie province AAI programs.

One Health is a current global initiative that encourages collaboration among all health disciplines with the goal of attaining optimal health for people, animals and the environment. It is also one of six signature research areas at the U of S as part of the university’s second integrated plan. The university is committed to developing scientific, public health and policy approaches in the area.


WEBINAR recordings are now available!  Offered by Drs. Dell, Chalmers and Anna-Belle the therapy dog.

Poster- CRISM WebinarsFINAL (2)
The first was held April 27, 2016, titled The human-animal bond: Understanding zooeyia”. The PowerPoint presentation is available – here

May 27: The history of Animal Assisted Interventions: From definitions to diseases. The PowerPoint presentation is available – here

June 27: Animal Assisted Interventions in Addictions: Practice to Research.  

April, 2016: Another Fact Sheet in the series released here – Environmental Scan of University Therapy Dog Programs in Canada

March, 2016: New Fact Sheet in the series has been released! Access it here –  University of Ottawa Student Academic Success Services & Health Promotion Therapy Dog program

November, 2015:  News Release – November 16, 2015 during National Addictions Awareness Week: U of S Leads Therapy Dog Research Project.
1. Calder Centre, Residential Addictions Treatment – Pilot Study Fact Sheet
2. Metis Addictions Council of Saskatchewan – Pilot Study Fact Sheet
3. Pet Therapy Program, Child and Youth Mental Health & Addictions, Saskatoon Health Region – Pilot Study Fact Sheet
Additional Fact Sheets will be released in 2016.

April – October, 2015: Working on draft Fact Sheets, draft Fact Sheets and more draft Fact Sheets.

March, 2015: Draft Fact Sheet of findings for the Saskatoon Health Region Pet Therapy program is complete and being reviewed by the program. Feedback will serve as a template for remaining sites.
Data analysis for Calder Centre is completed and Fact Sheet is being drafted.
Colleen Dell, Trisha Dowling and Darlene Chalmers have been awarded a One Health Development grant from the U of S to examine social workers’ knowledge and perceptions about human-animal interactions.

February, 2015: Data analysis continues.
A door hanger was released making the linkage between the physiological stress reducing impacts of petting a dog and Canada’s Low Risk Drinking Guidelines (contrary to popular belief, alcohol is a depressant and can increase feelings of stress).


January, 2015: Data entry and analysis continues alongside the development of the fact sheet outline.
Not counting the data collected at the U of S during the examination period, a total of 559 participants completed evaluation forms, 155 staff, 152 handlers, and 25 observers.

December, 2014: Data collection was completed this month and all is still being entered!
Lots of therapy dog visits & data collection took place on the U of S campus during exams – over 500 surveys were collected.
Starting to draft an outline for a fact sheet for each of the sites that contributed data.

November, 2014: Data is still being collected weekly at our sites!
Team members, Nancy Poole, Colleen Dell and St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Anna-Belle attend a FASD conference in Winnipeg and presented an afternoon session on Indigenous culture, AAIs, and trauma in healing from addictions.
We added a site visit and collected data from the Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technology.
We continue to enter the data to be analyzed, starting in January.

October, 2014: Data is being collected weekly at our sites, including the U of S, McMaster and U of Ottawa campuses.
Team members Colleen and Darlene attended several conferences in Saskatoon this month and presented on the One Health model and AAIs. Subie, the St. John Ambulance therapy dog, joined them. You can see photos on his Facebook site at

 September, 2014:  We welcomed the Saskatoon Sexual Assault and Information Centre, along with St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog team Candice and Chia, to our project along with a new team visiting at the Calder Addiction Treatment Centre.
The weekly PAWS Your Stress event on the U of S campus is growing weekly – 19, 34 & then 54 students in September.
Members of our team met with Elder Campbell Papequash and others to talk about Indigenous understanding of the interconnection of animal, environment and human health.
We are fortunate to have Alana  Demkiew, from the U of S Aboriginal Justice & Criminology program doing her placement with our team until December. She is talking a lead on organizing and entering all the data we are collecting.


August, 2014:
The PAWS Your Stress event has been confirmed and will be held on a weekly basis on both the U of S and McMaster University campuses. Each week students, faculty & staff will be able to stop by for some one-on-one time with a therapy dog (and fill out an evaluation form)!
Colleen and Subie (St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog) delivered a keynote address at the U of S One Health Leadership experience. Colleen and Darlene then spent the week-end as faculty mentors with incoming health, social science and social work students.
We have preliminary data from our analysis of the April PAWS Your Stress event during exams at the U of S, U of Regina and McMaster University. The #1 response to what the attendees experienced at the event was – LOVE.

July, 2014: Members of our team participated in a successful Paws in Motion fundraiser and Pets in the Park event on July 6. We shared information on our project and raised just over $500!
Added sites to our data collection, including the Native Law Centre at the U of S & the Metis Addictions Council of Saskatchewan Saskatoon in-patient treatment centre!
Have been contacting participates from the April 2014 PAWS Your Stress events at the U of S, U of Regina and McMaster University to talk with them about the short and long term effects of the event. This is the first study we are aware of that is documenting the long term impacts. And so far…there are some! Visit here for pictures of the U of S event.

June, 2014: St. John Ambulance therapy Dog Subie and SK members of the research team are participating in the Paws In Motion & Pets in the Park event on July 6th in Saskatoon. Clickhere– for more information or to donate.
Held as successful Dog Days of Summer event at the Saskatoon Farmers Market! Currently organizing the collected data.
Participated in and collected data at the U of S One Health Event held at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine with local elementary students!
Shared the project at several academic venues, including the NIDA International Forum, InWomen’s Conference, the Violence and Aggression Symposium and the Heart & Soul conference.
Saskatoon Health Region AAI training days set for September, 2014.

May, 2014: Further refinement of the project workplan.
Finalization and pilot testing of the evaluation form process at client focused data collection sites.
Started reviewing the Social Work Practice and Human Animal Interactions Survey for implementation.
Began preliminary analysis of the
PAWS Your Stress events data for the three participating universities.
 Stared planning for data collection at the Saskatoon Farmer’s Market ‘Dog Days of Summer’ event on June 21.

April, 2014: Drafted a study logo and communications title.
Further specified our workplan.
Data collection at the PAWS Your Stress event at the University of Saskatchewan, McMaster University and University of Regina.
Hired Kate Dunn (Master of Public Health) and Chelsea Nickel (4th year Sociology) for the summer months.

Saskatoon Health Region partner began planning a one-day AAI training session.


Dell, C., D. Chalmers, J. Gillett, B. Rohr, C. Nickel, L. Campbell, R. Hanoski, J. Haguerud, A. Husband, C. Stephenson, M. Brydges. (Forthcoming). “PAWSing student stress: A pilot study of the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog program on three Canadian campuses”. Canadian Journal of Counselling and Psychotherapy.

Dell, C. (Forthcoming). “Sociology and the human animal bond”. Reading Sociology. 3rd Edition. Toronto: Oxford University Press.

Dell, C. & N. Poole. (2015). “Taking a PAWS to Reflect on how the Work of a Therapy Dog Supports a Trauma-Informed Approach to Offender Health“. Journal of Forensic Nursing. 11:3, 167-173.
3 minute video abstract available at:

Chalmers, D. & C. Dell. (2015). “Applying One Health to the Study of Animal Assisted Interventions”. EcoHealth Journal. PMID:260630 pp. 1-3.

Adams, C. Arratoon, J. Boucher, G. Cartier, D. Chalmers, C. Dell, D. Dell, D. Dryka, R. Duncan, K. Dunn, C. Hopkins, L. Longclaws, T. MacKinnon, E. Sauve, S. Spence, M. Wuttunee. (2015). “The Helping Horse: How Equine Assisted Learning Contributes to the Wellbeing of First Nations Youth in Treatment for Volatile Substance Misuse”. Human Animal Interaction Bulletin. 1:1, 52-75.

Dell, C. & Anna-Belle (St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog). [by Anna-Belle the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog, as interpreted by her handler, Colleen Anne Dell]. (2015). “Questioning ‘Fluffy’: A Dog’s Eye View of Animal-Assisted Interventions (AAI) in the Treatment of Different Kinds of People Using Different Kinds of Drugs for Different Kinds of Reasons”. Substance Use & Misuse. Early E-Release March 17, 2015

Dell, C. & N. Poole. (2015). “PAWSitive Reflections: How the Work of a St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Supports a Trauma-Informed Approach to Prisoner Health” Swallows-Fry Conference. A Canadian Crisis: Criminalization & Imprisonment of Indigenous Women & those with Disabling Mental Health Issues. Saskatoon, SK.

Poole, N., C. Dell, Anna-Belle (St. John Ambulance therapy dog). (2014). “Bringing Trauma-Informed and Indigenous Mental Wellness Principles and Practices to Our Work on FASD Prevention”. Living Well: FASD and Mental Health. 3 hours. Winnipeg, MB.

Dell, C., D. Chalmers & Subie (St. John Ambulance therapy dog) (2014). “Treating Drug Addiction with AAT: Contributions of One Health”. 7th International Symposium: Safety & Health in Animal-Assisted Programs in Agricultural & Rural Populations. Global Perspectives. Saskatoon, SK.

Chalmers, D. & C. Dell. (2015). “Animal-Assisted Programs in Addictions and Mental Health: Navigating New Frontiers of Practice”. Celebrating Child Welfare Transformations: Interdisciplinary Practices, Field Education and Research. Saskatoon, SK.

Dell, C. (2015). “Animal Assisted Interventions and Prenatal Nursing”. Beardy’s & Okemasis Willow Cree First Nation, SK.

Dell, C. (2014). “Animal Assisted Interventions”. Saskatoon Health Region Addiction and Mental Health Managers. Saskatoon, SK.

Dell, C. & Subie (St. John Ambulance therapy dog). (2014). MACSI Board Meeting. Saskatoon, SK.

Dell, C. & Anna-Belle (St. John Ambulance therapy dog). (2014). “Addictions and Animal Assisted Interventions – Healing”. Faculty of Social Work. Saskatoon: University of Regina.

Dell, C. & Subie (St. John Ambulance therapy dog). (2014). “Applying One Health to Understanding the  Offering of PAWSitive Support”. One Health Leadership Conference. Saskatoon, SK.

Dell, C. (2014). “PAWSitive Support: Applying Animal Assisted Therapy in the Treatment of Addiction & Mental Health”. International Women’s Group conference. Peurto Rico, USA.

Bokitch, A., Chalmers, D., Dell, C., Field, A. & Gillett, J. (2014). Treating Drug Addiction with Animal Assisted Therapy. Ottawa: Canadian Research Initiative in Substance Misuse (CRISM).


Colleen and Darlene sharing our project with Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall at one of our data collection sites, Cartier Farms. 



One Health Leadership Experience, Western College of Veterinary Medicine, August 2014