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Enhancing student wellbeing: Edinburgh University's animal therapy scheme

One aspect of the University of Edinburgh's approach to ensuring student wellbeing centres around its student accommodation: the Residence Life team (supported by over 200 Resident Assistants, comprised of returning students) aim to create a supportive and inclusive home from home for their 9000 student residents. This includes a programme of events that provide opportunities to socialise and relax, as well as on-site wardens who can offer support and advice. In 2013, Residence Life introduced animal therapy to the University's halls of residence, and Senior Residence Life Coordinator, Cheryl Hutton, tells us a little more about it here:

Therapy pets (Therapets) were first introduced at the University of Edinburgh as part of a collaboration between the University's Student Counselling Service and the Canine Concern Scotland Trust (CCST). Named Paws against Stress, the scheme was initially seen as an opportunity to help students alleviate stress during exam periods. The events proved extremely popular and so the Residence Life department decided to bring CCST therapets into University residences: Paws Fur a Break was born.

Typically, 4-5 events are held during both the winter and spring exam periods, across different residences throughout the city of Edinburgh, attracting over 600 students. Health and safety is taken seriously: the waiting room is separate from the main event and all events are ticketed to avoid queues, excessive noise, or causing distress to our furry friends. The students get 15 minutes with the dogs in groups, with CCST volunteers and Residence Life staff present to create a safe, comfortable environment and also to offer other stress busting tips and resources. Since launching, this initiative for promoting student wellbeing has continued to soar in popularity - uptake is always high with all 15 minute slots being filled and a sizeable waiting list of those keen to fill any positions that become vacant. Students get to enjoy time with up to 6 dogs and really appreciate getting to pet and cuddle them, as well as getting to know the friendly owners.

Many students comment that they miss their pets back home and the Paws Fur a Break scheme offers a way of temporarily filling that void and providing some much-needed home comforts. The feedback from the students has been overwhelmingly positive and the demand seems to be ever-growing; one student commented that this was “the best event ever organised” by the University! The scheme was even featured on Reporting Scotland on the BBC.

To maximise the benefit to all student residents, we make sure that Animal Assisted Initiatives do not stop with CCST: reptiles from Edinburgh Zoo have been brought in to residences; hands-on trips are organised to Edinburgh Zoo, Gorgie City Farm and the Edinburgh Cat Café; and Beekeeping Classes at our very own on-site apiary keep our student residents in touch with the simpler things in life.

Dog therapy remains a popular fixture and most recently, the Residence Life team brought alpacas to the Pollock Halls of residence which was extremely popular. The dogs and alpacas will be returning to us soon for the exam period, and we have some exiting plans in the pipeline to bring along Shetland ponies to visit our residences too!

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