From left: Laddie, Dr. Colleen Dell (PhD), E-Jay, and Doreen Stumborg (BA’09, MFA’20) are part of the PAWS Your Stress team. (Photo: Larry Kwok)

‘There’s so much about a dog that touches people’s hearts’

Volunteering with the PAWS Your Stress program is ‘very rewarding’ for USask graduate Doreen Stumborg (BA’09, MFA’20) and her dog, Laddie


Doreen Stumborg (BA’09, MFA’20) retired from her job at the University of Saskatchewan (USask) in 2018, but she continues to give back to the campus community.

Stumborg, a USask graduate who previously worked in the College of Medicine, remains connected to the university as a therapy dog handler with the PAWS Your Stress program, which brings volunteer therapy dogs and handlers to the Saskatoon campus. The PAWS Your Stress program was founded at USask in 2013 by the office of the Centennial Enhancement Chair in One Health and Wellness to provide comfort and support to members of the campus community and beyond. It is offered in collaboration with Peer Health and the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog program. 

For Stumborg and her dog, Laddie—a Schnauzer Cross that her family adopted from the Saskatoon SPCA—the PAWS Your Stress program is a great fit.

“Ever since I was a young child, I understood the comfort and the serenity and the benefit of being with my animals,” Stumborg said. “I grew up on a farm (and) always loved animals. And when I saw what pet therapy was doing with St. John Ambulance, I thought, ‘I think I have the dog to do that, and I think that would be a really enjoyable thing to do in retirement.’ ”

Dr. Colleen Dell (PhD), a sociology professor in USask’s College of Arts and Science and the university’s Centennial Enhancement Chair in One Health and Wellness, said the PAWS Your Stress therapy dogs and their handlers have visited with more than 30,000 USask students in the past decade. Stumborg and Laddie have been a consistent part of many of those visits since becoming a therapy dog team in 2017.

Along with her own dogs, Dell both participates in the PAWS Your Stress program and helps track its success, publishing research on the connection between human wellness and interaction with therapy dogs. One study published by her team reported 92 per cent of USask students found visiting with therapy dogs helped them to reduce their stress. Such findings contribute to research literature indicating that being around a therapy dog can help to lower students’ stress and anxiety levels, increase their happiness, and contribute to improved mental health.

“It’s a great pleasure and it’s an honour to work with people like Doreen—and Laddie and the other animals—and really become part of a team,” said Dell. “It’s an amazing approach to community-based research.”

Stumborg, who supported research activities on campus when she worked as an employee in the College of Medicine, learned more about the PAWS Your Stress program after watching Dell and other therapy dog handlers give a presentation at USask about their work. That presentation focused on research that explored the value of service dogs for Canadian veterans, and it inspired Stumborg. She approached Dell after the presentation to talk about getting involved with PAWS Your Stress, and the rest is history.

Stumborg knew Laddie would be a great fit for the program due to his calm, easygoing personality. She believes Laddie enjoys his role as a therapy dog because he likes being around people and is happy interacting with them.

“He especially loves the young adult stage, and that’s why we do so much of the PAWS Your Stress visits,” Stumborg said.

Stumborg has personally experienced the power of the animal-human bond. She has been comforted by Laddie and his sidekick, a cat named Ninja.

“Sometimes that comfort is better than what any human can give you,” she said. “It’s without words. It’s total acceptance, unconditional love—all of those things.”

Since retiring from USask, Stumborg has volunteered with PAWS Your Stress and has also pursued another passion: writing. After earning her Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology in the College of Arts and Science in 2009, she returned to the college in 2018 to pursue graduate studies, completing the Master of Fine Arts in Writing program in 2020. Stumborg had dreamed of attending the writing program since it was established at USask in 2011 and she found it to be a “phenomenal” experience.

“I loved every minute of it,” she said.

Stumborg finds volunteering with the PAWS Your Stress program to be a “very rewarding” activity in retirement that enhances her own wellbeing, as well as the wellbeing of others. She has witnessed people’s stress “just melt away” once they begin interacting with a therapy dog, whether it’s on campus, at a vaccination clinic, or in another health-care setting.

“You can hardly describe the experience because there’s so much about a dog that touches people’s hearts, especially when they’re in crisis—and that’s often when we visit,” she said.

The work of Dell and her research team ties into several of USask’s signature areas of research, including One Health, Health and Wellness, and Communities and Sustainability.  Dell noted her research is community based, and the PAWS Your Stress program regularly brings members of the community—both human and animal—onto campus. It is programs like PAWS Your Stress, and the associated community-based research projects, that help USask to be the university the world needs, said Stumborg and Dell.

“We need more connection to animals; we need more connection to nature,” Dell said. “What the world needs is more understanding of broader concepts of health.”

Together, we will undertake the research the world needs. We invite you to join by supporting critical research at USask.