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STUDENT ACADEMIC SUCCESS Service (SASS) recently employed man’s best friend to help reduce student stress on campus. Tundra, the fully certified therapy dog now working at SASS, belongs to associate professor Audrey Gilles of the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Ottawa.

“Tundra was a dog that I rescued during my last year of grad school,” said Gilles. “I think she is evidence that you can teach old dogs new tricks, and rescues can make fantastic dogs, too.”

Tundra holds office hours where students can drop in and play with her to get their mind off university blues. Students can choose to visit Tundra in her office, so those who are anxious about canines don’t have to be exposed.

“The first time we did it we only had a handful of students,” said Murray Sang, director of SASS, about Tundra’s first office-hour visitors. “The last time we had 30–40 students who came by.”

Tundra was certified by Therapeutic Paws of Canada, and has been volunteering for the past three years at a retirement home before working at the U of O.

“She’s a great dog who had done basically all of the courses that the obedience school had to offer, except the therapy dog class, so I thought, ‘Well, we’ll take this,’” Gilles said. “So she did the course, passed the exam, and we put her to work.”

Gilles explained the goal of the program is to reduce stress on campus. Sang added several studies demonstrated people respond well to dogs and spending time with them is an effective way to reduce anxiety.

“I thought that this could be something that could help to decrease stress,” she said. “A lot of students really miss their dogs that they leave behind and can’t bring to school with them. The students would take out their cellphones and laptops and show me pictures of their dogs.”

Sang said he had been thinking of starting a therapy dog program on campus before he was contacted by Gilles—Sang got the idea from a similar program launched by law students at McGill University.

“We’d seen the McGill story, and I had written to Therapeutic Paws of Canada, so her timing was really good,” he said. “The fact that Audrey is a full-time professor here—she gets it. I thought it was an easy fit for us because we got someone who already works for the university.”

In accordance with the university’s strong bilingual status, Tundra has undergone intensive French-language training with her owner to serve both English and French students.

“I needed to improve my French, so I went to Jonquière, Que., for French training, and I didn’t want to leave my dog behind so they found a host family that agreed to take her,” Gilles said. “She lived in a French household, so she is the ideal University of Ottawa employee.”

Students who are feeling overwhelmed or in need of help are encouraged to visit the professionals at SASS—canine or otherwise.

“People can take a break in their day and do something that is fun and shown to reduce stress and anxiety,” said Gilles.

To find out where Tundra is appearing next, go to Sass.uottawa.ca or follow Tundra on Twitter @TundraDawg. 

Andrew Ikeman