jolina 560Grade 9 student Jolina McLean spent some time with Wendall the pug January 26 at SDSS. Hub photo

Hub Staff

Students at Saugeen District Secondary School (SDSS) got the chance to unwind during their lunch break and make friends with therapy dogs - and their pug companions - before the students begin their busy and sometimes stressful first semester exams. The furry friends were provided by Unleash the Pawsitive, who brought six dogs to the school on January 25 and 26, after they were asked by SDSS’s Student Mental Health Advisory Committee (SMHAC).

Now it its third year, SMHAC, which is run by students with the help of two teacher representatives, is gaining traction with the students, with a goal of ending the stigma surrounding mental health. Grade 10 student and member of SMHAC, Sarah Sollars, organized the occasion, also in its second year, for her fellow students and received gestures of thanks and nuzzles from the dogs.

“Right before exams it’s great to have a stress reliever,” said Sollars. “It helps get their mind off things and it’s something positive to look forward to.”

Sollars went on to say that she has noticed SMHAC making a real impact on her fellow students and more students have been attending events they host.

The Committee received $2,000 in funding from the Dare to Dream program, through Ontario Centre of Excellence for Child and Youth Mental Health, earlier this year, which they will put towards creating more activities.

Jodi McDonald is one of two teacher representatives for the Committee and said that help from “great community partners” who assist initiatives by volunteering their time as well as funds from a grant, students have been able to create a weekly calendar of events that include stress-busting activities such as gingerbread decorating, yoga and adult colouring; with plans to begin knitting workshops. “Something for students to try, for positive coping strategies,” said McDonald.

In the years past, McDonald said SMHAC has created a safe place for students who struggle with anxiety. The space was decorated using design elements from Chinese philosophy - Feng Shui- and features all elements and uses specific lighting.

Earlier this year students from all grade levels and their peer groups attended a session at the Outdoor Education Centre where they covered four topics through open dialogue. Students talked about healthy relationships, how to improve relationships between staff and students, ways to manage stress; and how to create inclusive environments. From that, committee members came up with ideas and have hit the ground running implementing the principles at SDSS.

McDonald said the Bluewater District School Board (BWDSB) has a “real focus” on trying to improve mental health well-being in students but that the ideas come from the students. She added that an open dialog about mental health is important to everyone and that just having a group present at schools helps to reduce the stigma.

Owner of Unleash the Pawsitive, Melissa MacKinnon, was happy to volunteer her time and bring her therapy dog Oakley, who basked in the attention he received from the students. “All the dogs here love attention so that makes them the perfect candidate to be a therapy dog,” she said. “They’re here to provide love.”

McKinnon said that the dogs go through personality testing and must enjoy being around crowds, children as well as the elderly. McKinnon joked that they’re not trained in obedience but do help people deal with stress.

group 560Members of Saugeen District Secondary School’s Student Mental Health Advisory Committee and their therapy dog friends, brought in by Unleash the Pawsitive through the Committee's mental health initiative January 26. Submitted photo

sollars 560From left, Sasha Morano, Sarah Sollars, Diya Parihk and Frances Rosario with their new pug friend January 26 at SDSS. Submitted photo

Oakley 560Saugeen District Secondary Student Jessica got some one on one time with therapy dog Oaklee before exams January 26 at SDSS. Submitted photo

Wendall 560Adventurous dog Wendall made some new friends at SDSS January 26. Hub photo