Sabbatical Research – Pet Therapy (Animal-Assisted Interventions)

Products_Catalogue_OCT 30_SINGLE_PAGES_Page_21There is increasing recognition about the need for individualized and multi-dimensional support along individuals’ substance abuse recovery paths. There is likewise growing attention to animal assisted interventions (AAI), commonly known as pet therapy, as a space for receiving support. Both the Canadian and American Veterinary Medical Associations recognize the human-animal bond and internationally researchers have begun to explore its positive benefits on human mental, physical, and spiritual health. AAI programs, including both Animal Assisted Therapy & Animal Assisted Activities,  are increasingly being offered in the primary health care field in Canada and around the world, including in addictions and mental health, and range from engaging dogs in counseling sessions to non-riding therapeutic programs with horses. However, there is little awareness and sharing amongst programs and a need for increased documented empirical evidence about AAI effectiveness.

The aim of my sabbatical research (July 2013-June 2014) was to combine key aspects of several of the studies I have been involved with since I began my position as the Research Chair in Substance Abuse at the University of Saskatchewan in 2007, and to develop them into a new and emerging area of academic study that pushes our boundaries of understanding. This area is the impact of the human-animal bond, via an integrated Indigenous worldview and One Health framework, to better understand the role of support in individuals’ healing from addictions. With training through the Extreme K-9 Dog Psychology Academy in Illinois, USA, testing with the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog program & a AAA/AAT certificate course from Harcum College, during my sabbatical I learned, applied and experienced the impact of the human-animal bond on healing for individuals with addictions; the necessary beginning stage for a community-based researcher. This is rooted in my research on the therapeutic alliance between clients and service providers, the impact of equine assisted learning on healing from addictions, and Indigenous culture as a health intervention.  I am concentrating on the potential for AAIs to contribute to integrated ways of thinking about system and service delivery in the addictions field, innovative forms of prevention programming, and recovery from trauma. (A great big thank-you to WestJet for helping making it possible for Anna-Belle the therapy dog to attend the training in Illinois with me!)

I have two dogs that became St. John Ambulance Therapy Dogs, registered with myself as the handler, in March, 2013.  Subie (left) is a 6 year old Boxer & Anna-Belle is a 4 year old Bulldog (middle). Subie mainly visits the Calder Addictions Treatment Centre and Anna-Belle visits the Brightwater Senior’s Facility, both in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Anna-Belle is also working on the University of Saskatchewan campus. Kisbey, a 8 year old Boxer, was registered in September, 2013 as a therapy dog with St. John Ambulance and is doing regular visits in the correctional system at the Regional Psychiatric Centre in Saskatchewan and the Light House Supported Living.



A Project Collaboration Agreement was signed in October, 2013 between the Pet Therapy Committee, Children’s Services, Mental Health & Addiction Services, Saskatoon and the Office of the Research Chair in Substance Abuse, University of Saskatchewan. We are working to establish an evaluation of the Saskatoon Pet Therapy Program with the assistance of the STREAM published First Steps First: A Community-Based Workbook for Evaluating Substance Abuse and Mental Health Programs in Saskatchewan





Saskatoon Health Region AAI Research Team Training Day with Eileen Bona from Dreamcatcher.
I am a member of the newly formed (2013) joint Western College of Veterinary Medicine & University of Regina School of Social Work Faculty Veterinary Social Work Committee. We had our first presentation to the WCVM faculty and students in January 2014 – it was very well attended and there was lots of interest and discussion! Even more exciting is that a Social Work MA student did her practicum placement at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine and has now been hired on as a staff member. This is the first time in Canada that a social worker has been formally involved in veterinary practice.

In partnership with Rita Hanoski, Health Education Coordinator at U of Saskatchewan Student Health Services & Darlene Chalmers, Assistant Professor at the U of Regina Faculty of Social Work, we partnered in 2014 with students in the School of Public Health, Health Promotions Class (PUBH 803) to examine the use of animal-assisted therapy among Saskatchewan health care providers. Currently in Saskatchewan, a number of programs exist that include animals, but very little is known about the knowledge base, preparation and education of health care providers related to their interactions with animals, the human-animal bond and specifically animal-assisted interventions.


A large, multi-disciplinary team was assembled in Fall of 2013, led by myself and Darlene Chalmers from the University of Regina,  and we submitted a grant application to the Canadian Research Initiative in Substance Misuse, sponsored by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research. It was awarded funding in February 2014!  The proposed aim of the grant is to help fill the gap in current knowledge by exploring AAT with: (1) dogs in a youth and adult residential addictions treatment facility (Calder Addiction Treatment Centre), and (2) horses in a youth residential care facility (Eagle’s Nest Youth Ranch). The problematic use of drugs and other substances is a common form of coping among individuals with a trauma history. We will be working within the Western-derived One Health framework to draw collectively among medical, animal, social and environmental specialists to better understand the human-animal-environment interface to achieve wellbeing. We also recognize and plan to account for the significant overlap between One Health’s holistic approach to conceptualizing health and an Indigenous worldview grounded in First Nations cultural knowledge (the need for physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual harmony). The website for this project is available here.

Anna-Belle and I had an amazing opportunity to visit Dr. James Gillett and the Department of Health, Aging and Society at McMaster University in January, 2014!  Many thanks to the Critical Health Research Network at McMaster and VIA rail for accommodating Anna-Belle’s trip! I have since become a co-investigator on Dr. Gillett’s funded work with the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research on the Effectiveness of Service Dogs in the Treatment of PTSD among Veterans. Our work together has also led to a recent awarding of a Veterans Affairs Canada grant. We made a song and music video to share about this work and that are available here.

Anna-Belle, Subie and Kisbey’s visits to the U of S campus are in partnership with U of S Student Health Services, What’s Your Cap – the U of S Student Binge Drinking Prevention Initiative, the Western College of Veterinary Medicine and the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse. They visit the campus alongside other St. John Ambulance Therapy Dogs every two weeks to add a mindful pause to individuals’ days and visits more often during exam times to share in a healthy way to help others deal with stress. I also help lead the implementation of a stress reducing event with several St. John Ambulance Therapy dogs for the April and December examination periods on campus. Anna-Belle, Subie and Kisbey were recently interviewed for the U of S Oncampus newspaper ; ) (available here).

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Our team’s AAT research with horses is available here.


Let’s be Facebook friends!   The adventures of Anna-Belle, Subie, Kisbey and myself with Animal Assisted Therapy are being chronicled on Facebook:   Be sure to follow the page to both learn and share!

You can also share photos you take with your new canine therapy dog friends on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook:



C. Dell, S. Acoose & Anna-Belle (St. John Ambulance therapy dog). 2014. “Animals, Addictions and their Role ion Recovery”. OASIS Group, Saskatoon Health Region. Saskatoon, SK.

C. Dell & Subie (St. John Ambulance therapy dog). 2014. ““Animal Assisted Interventions: A Dog’s Eye View“. SPCA Animal Welfare Conference. Saskatoon, SK.

C. Dell & Subie (St. John Ambulance therapy dog). 2014. “Addressing Violence with Animal Assisted Therapy”. Family Services Saskatoon. Saskatoon, SK.

C. Dell & Kisbey (St. John Ambulance therapy dog). 2014. “Working with a Therapy Dog at the Regional Psychiatric Centre in Saskatoon, Canada”. Elizabeth Fry Society of Saskatchewan Annual  General  Meeting. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Keynote Speaker.

C. Dell & Anna-Belle (therapy dog). 2014. “Animal Assisted Interventions in the Mental Health & Addictions Fields”.  Psychiatry Academic Research Day, University of Saskatchewan. Saskatoon, SK.

C. Dell & Anna-Belle (therapy dog). 2014. “Animal Assisted Therapy as ‘Medicine’ “. University of Saskatchewan  Medical Students’ Wellness Initiative. Saskatoon, SK.

C. Dell & Anna-Belle (therapy dog). 2014.  “Applying Animal Assisted Therapy in the Treatment of Addictions”. SK Regional NNDAP Symposium. Saskatoon, SK. Key Note Speaker.

C. Dell & Anna-Belle (therapy dog). 2014.  “PAWSitive Support: Animal Assisted Therapy & Wellness”. McMaster University Health and Aging Research Network, Community Event Talk. Hamilton, ON.

E. Sauve, C. Dell, D. Chalmers, N. Kirlin(2013). “PAWSitive Support: Applying Animal Assisted Therapy in the Treatment of Addictions”. Issues of Substance – Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse. Ottawa, ON.

C. Dell. 2013. “Animal Assisted Interventions and One Health”. University of Saskatchewan One Health Leadership Experience. Saskatoon, SK.


St. John Ambulance Newsletter – March 2014

Positive Energy – Meet a Very Special Dog Who Brings Laughter and Support
– SaskTel Max Magazine video, January – February 2014



Paws Your Stress at U of S
– News Talk 980 CJME, April 11, 2014

Therapy Dogs at the U of S
– CTV News Saskatoon, April 10, 2014

Therapy Dogs Relieve Stressed University Students
– Global News Saskatoon, April 10, 2014

Therapy Dogs During Exam
– Saskatoon Star Phoenix, April 10, 2014

Therapy dogs Soothe U of S Students Exam Stress
– CBC News Radio, April 10, 2014

Morning News – U of S Students De-stress for Exams 
– Global Saskatchewan, April 10, 2014

U of S Wants Students to Stress Less During Exams by Bringing in the Dogs
– University of Saskatchewan News Release, April 7, 2014

Puppy Love For U of S Students
– Saskatoon Media Group Radio Interview, April 2, 2013

Year In Review – October
– The StarPhoenix, December 28, 2013

Therapy Dog Helps Ease Holiday Stress
– Global Saskatoon, December 28, 2013

Anna-Belle, Certified Therapy Dog, Visits the Education & Music Library
Dispatches from the Education & Music Library, December 2013

Anna-Belle the Bull of the Ball
– Saskatoon Metro, November 29, 2013

Students Pet Away Final Exam Stress at the University of Saskatchewan
– Saskatoon Metro, November 28, 2013

Canada Raises the Bar for Mental Health Research
– Canada’s Innovation Leaders, November 8, 2013

Anna-Belle the Therapy Dog
-CJWW/Magic 98.2/92.9 The Bull – Saskatoon Media Group, October 22, 2013


Colleen Dell and her Caring Canine
– CBC News, October 22, 2013

Therapy Dog Spreads Paw-sitive Vibe
– The Star Phoenix, October 21, 2013

Anna-Belle The Therapy Dog Visits Blue Sky
– CBC Radio One, October 21, 2013

Therapy Dogs: Much More Than a Pet Project
– Saskatoon Express, September 2, 2013

PAWsitive Beginning
St. John Ambulance Newsletter, September 2013

Therapy Dogs Bring Joy to People 
-WCVM Today, July, 2013