Anna-Belle the therapy bulldog is ready to help with your COVID-19 anxiety

When you see Anna-Belle the bulldog doing the hokey pokey you can't help but smile. And that's her job as a therapy dog.

Anna-Belle is a part of the PAWS Your Stress program for students and staff at the University of Saskatchewan, which, like most programs, has gone virtual during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We are all quickly learning that physical distancing doesn't have to mean we disconnect from supports in our lives, and this includes therapy dogs," said Colleen Dell, a professor of sociology and research chair of One Health and Wellness.

"We are fortunate to have the technology to take our service online during COVID-19.

Dell, who is also the handler of Anna-Belle, said from now until the end of July, PAWS Your Stress events will take place at least twice a week online for U of S students and for the rest of the community.

The 10-minute Facebook Live events will feature a therapy dog doing an everyday healthy activity, such as going for a walk or grooming where you will also learn pandemic-specific mental health self-care tips.

Then there will be pre-recorded segments of handlers reading to their pets.

"There's an example of me and Anna-Belle and I'm reading a story to her as well as to the audience because we know that reading out loud can be a meaningful way to connect," Dell said.

Before COVID-19, Anna-Belle was out in the community visiting students at the U of S or residents at The Lighthouse.

"Now we're just going to try take that and just be really creative in how we can share that with our community on campus and with all residents of Saskatchewan."

Stay stimulated, learn new tricks

Dell said what's good for dogs can also be good for humans.

It's important for Anna-Belle's mental health to stay stimulated, to learn a new trick and exercise, Dell said.

"So we're trying to learn from the dogs of what they do in their lives."

On Tuesday at 1 p.m., Zaphod, a Great Pyrenees therapy dog, and his handler Tonya will do the first online therapy dog visit.

They will use Facebook Live (@PAWSYourStress), and afterwards the recorded video will be linked to additional social media platforms, including Instagram (@pawsyourstress), Twitter (@PawsStress) and YouTube (PAWSYourStress).

"Tonya has a regular coffee at one o'clock with Zaphod …where he's really Zen and kind of just lays out for 10 minutes there, and sometimes he does as little chatter," Dell said.

Dell said the St. John's Ambulance therapy dog handlers care so much about their community and she hopes that will still come across online.

"It's a little bit different but it's the best that we can do at this time."

Dell said they have more requests for visits than they can actually do so this might end up being a way to connect with more people.

"The therapy dog teams care deeply about the well-being of students, staff and faculty on our campus and the people of Saskatchewan. We hope these virtual visits will be helpful to a lot of people who are isolated right now – kids, youth, seniors and adults," said Dell.