It's Monday afternoon, and Booth University College in Winnipeg has a pair of visitors in its sun-filled common room: a goldendoodle named Dexter and a border collie/Labrador mix named Claire. They’re surrounded by a small group of students, and are being showered with pats and snuggles.

Quinn Hegg lives on campus with her support animal, Chubbster
Claire and Dexter are emotional-support dogs visiting from St. John Ambulance on the first day of final exams. They’re here to help students cope with stress and anxiety.

Navigating Life
“Exam season is stressful, everyone knows that, but the dogs bring a little touch of home,” says Zach Marshall, a 20-year-old business administration student who has a beagle named Maggie back home in St. John’s, N.L. “It brings that calming influence that allows me to push through and focus.”

Sessions with emotional-support dogs are becoming increasingly popular at colleges and universities all over North America, especially during exam time. Although their effect on humans is still an emerging area of scientific study, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting that interacting with animals can boost mood and mitigate stress.

Exams, of course, are not the only source of stress for post-secondary students. Along with balancing course loads and exam schedules, many university and college students are living on their own for the first time. They’re navigating that space between being a teenager and being an adult, figuring out what kind of person they’ll be.

Unconditional Love
For some students, a visit with Claire or Dexter might be enough to calm jangled nerves during exam season. For other students living with mental illness, a little more support is required.

To that end, Booth University College has recently implemented a service/support animal policy for students in residence, allowing those students with a medically documented disability to keep an animal in on-campus housing. (It’s worth noting that emotional-support animals are not the same as service animals. Service animals have specific training, whereas emotional-support animals do not. Booth’s policy covers both.)

“It’s something we’re trying,” says Rhonda Friesen, dean of students. “We feel it has made a positive difference, and we want to be on the proactive edge of things.”

Booth University College has one furry resident so far—a black-and-white rabbit named Chubbster. Chubbster belongs to Quinn Hegg, 19, a second-year behavioural sciences and English student.

Dexter the goldendoodle meets student Stephen Graham as part of Booth University College’s support animal programDexter the goldendoodle meets student Stephen Graham as part of Booth University College’s support animal program
Quinn, who comes to Booth University College from Airdrie, Alta., was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder when she was 17, after years of being misdiagnosed with ADHD.

“Getting a diagnosis was ground-breaking—to have a treatment plan that worked for me and have a label for what was going on,” she says.

Part of that treatment plan included the recommendation of a support animal. Quinn had originally wanted to get a cat, but a fellow student on her floor had a severe allergy. So Quinn went down to the Winnipeg Humane Society and, when she met the fat rabbit, it was love at first sight.

“He’s a sass ball,” she says with a laugh. “He’s very vocal. He’s a work in progress. We believe he came from a rough situation. He’s slowly becoming more cuddly and affectionate. He loves snacks, nonstop, hence his name. For a rabbit, he’s pretty outgoing.”

Chubbster has changed Quinn’s life.

“It sounds so small, but having him in residence changed everything,” she says. “It made school easier, it made studying easier. I have something to look forward to.” When she’s depressed, he helps her get out of bed in the morning. “I have to do what I have to do to take care of him. And having that companionship when I’m feeling alone or isolated—I always have unconditional love.”

Reprinted from Winnipeg Free Press, April 17, 2018

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