Mac and his human handler Dawn Holt celebrated the senior golden retriever’s 15th birthday and his retirement as a therapy dog at the University of the Fraser Valley, where he pioneered therapy work 13 years ago. Dustin Godfrey/Abbotsford News

Therapy dog retires from B.C. university

Mac and his handler pioneered using dogs for therapy in a university setting 13 years ago

After 91 years on the job, it’s time for Mac to hang up his hat – not that he has a hat.

Macbeth had plenty to celebrate at the University of the Fraser Valley Tuesday afternoon: his retirement and the golden retriever’s 105th birthday (that’s 15 years to you, humans).

And he’s been a very good boy – 13 years ago, Mac sniffed out a brand new path as a therapy dog with his human Dawn Holt.

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“At the time that he was placed, he was the first accredited facility dog [in the world] placed in a post-secondary institution doing therapeutic work with students,” said Tara Doherty, marketing and communications director with the Pacific Assistance Dogs Society (PADS), which trained and placed Mac.

“I think that can be a bold statement, but we don’t have any other documented situations before, and it was a leap of faith on the part of the University of the Fraser Valley, because there was no precedent.”

Holt, a registered clinical counsellor at UFV, brought the idea to the university man dog-decades ago, citing her university thesis work on the mental health benefits of assistance dogs for handlers with disabilities.

She looked into research on the use of therapy dogs in health-care and said she felt a therapy dog could be beneficial for a university setting as well.

“When I was hired here, I was eventually able to convince management to give it a shot as a pilot program, and 13 years later we’re still doing it,” Holt said, adding that universities are good setting for therapy dogs because they are like “mini-cities.”

“Mini-cities have people who have mental health struggles just like everywhere else, so kids in university and mature students who come to university, they still have all the life stressors that all of the rest of us have, plus the added stressor of academics. So, students’ stress load are actually much higher than they actually might seem on the surface.”

And Mac has proven the efficacy of dogs in counselling services, which Holt says can encourage students with opening up about their issues. Dogs have also been shown to physiologically lower stress levels in a therapy setting, Holt said.

And since Mac began, more and more dogs have begun doing similar work throughout Canada.

“Across the country, PADS … has about 35 accredited facility dogs working in various settings. Some of them post-secondary like Mac, some of them work with victim services, long-term care facilities, things like that,” Doherty said. “But there’s hundreds across the world, now.”

In his time at the university, Mac has had 1,792 drop-in visits, 6,187 counselling sessions and over 12,000 meet-and-greets. University officials say he played a key role in 635 intensive therapy sessions and 12 critical incident and disaster relief deployments.

Of Mac’s retirement, Holt said, “It’s one of those life changes that’s unavoidable, but for sure, it’s very emotional.”

And he was a pup-ular dog at the reception, where he made many friends and enjoyed countless rubs.

Holt has adopted Mac, which she said is unusual for PADS dogs, as most work with persons with disabilities who need new assistance dogs.

In the meantime, she said she won’t be taking on another therapy dog while she and Mac enjoy the senior retriever’s golden years.

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Dustin Godfrey | Reporter

@dustinrgodfrey

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Mac and his human handler Dawn Holt celebrated the senior golden retriever’s 15th birthday and his retirement as a therapy dog at the University of the Fraser Valley, where he pioneered therapy work 13 years ago. Dustin Godfrey/Abbotsford News

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