UFV student Lee Brekstad has become a regular visitor to Student Services to spend time with Mac.

Golden retriever gets UFV students to Paws for a Break

A University of the Fraser Valley counsellor has brought the therapeutic benefits of a loving dog to the university's stressed students.

All dog lovers know that embracing a warm body of fur brings instant comfort. A counsellor at the University of the Fraser Valley has incorporated this common wisdom into her practice.

Mac is a mellow nine-year-old golden retriever that has been a thrice weekly resident at Dawn Holt’s counselling office at UFV in Abbotsford since 2007. Last month, the university permitted students to book short sessions with Mac.

When student Lee Brekstad comes to visit the 75-pound shaggy dog, she drops comfortably to the floor of Holt’s small brightly-lit office at Student Services. Mac gravitates toward her, laying a paw on her arm and adopting Brekstad’s relaxed vibe.

Brekstad suffers from anxiety and depression. Since the university launched the Paws for a Break 15-minute drop-in sessions with Mac on Oct. 15, Brekstad has seen Mac weekly, in addition to her regular counsellor at UFV.

When she leaves Mac’s presence, she says she is more relaxed and grounded. Her thoughts are not racing.

This positive impact is typical, says Holt. Over the years, Mac has provided therapeutic comfort to hundreds and hundreds of UFV students. Over 80 per cent of the 10 drop-in slots fill up each week.

Mac has the greatest impact on students with anxiety, depression, and homesickness, explained Holt.

“There’s something around a student who feels alone in the world. Who feels that dark black cloud of depression smothering them. To be able to come in and let that go for a while, and to be able to hold onto Mac. It gives a sense of not being all alone.”

Holt may have a client in the midst of an anxiety attack place his or her hands on Mac – who always maintains an abnormally slow heart rate – to match breathing, calming the client.

It is a rare trait for a dog to absorb emotions from humans effortlessly, as Mac does.

“You would never know that he’s had a long hard day at work. That he’s had four students in crisis crying into his fur, because he acts as he would every day. It takes a very unique dog to do this work. They’re very, very rare,” said Holt.

Mac, the UFV's therapeutic dogShe describes Mac as a “unique combination of empathy, unconditional understanding, and goofiness.”

According to Holt, Mac is the world’s first registered therapy dog based at a university.

“When we first came here, the university said, ‘This is ground-breaking. Let’s try it out, and let’s keep it slightly under the radar, because this is brand new. It’s a little unsure whether this will work or not.'”

Mac is specially trained to calm people in crises. The Burnaby-based non-profit, Pacific Assistance Dogs Society (PADS), owns Mac and re-certifies him annually. Holt is the one that has lived with Mac for eight years, and trusted him with her UFV clients for six. Mac will continue serving as a PADS dog for another few years before retiring and becoming Holt’s pet.

The university has put Paws for a Break on a trial run to the end of the current semester. If successful, the drop-in sessions will be extended for the future.

At lunchtime this Thursday, Nov 28, PADS is bringing 6–10 lab and golden retriever puppies in training to be assistance dogs to UFV. It’s a chance for students to take a break and relax, and for the puppies to learn to socialize in a busy environment. The event will run from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Alumni Hall on the Abbotsford campus.

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