The Pet Café provides comfort for UVic students in times of need

Lifestyle Sports | Lifestyle

The Café will be reopening soon with trained dogs available for students 

Picture of Piper by Gary Walmsley.

As students at UVic busily run from class-to-class, prepare for mid-term exams, and work hard on their assignments, they might be ‘feline’ a bit stressed out or ‘ruff.’

This is what Ruth Dantzer noticed five years ago after being appointed Anglican Chaplain at UVic’s Multifaith Centre. 

“The first thing I noticed was how stressed out and lonely students were,” said Dantzer, who is now also a spiritual care provider at the centre. “I wanted to create a program that would serve as a support for students in their all over hardships that come along with student life.”

Dantzer, who currently coordinates over 60 volunteers, created the cuddle-worthy environment now known as the Pet Café, located at the Multifaith Centre. The Pet Café is funded by the Anglican Diocese of British Columbia, and has volunteers from the Pacific Animal Therapeutic Society, otherwise known as PATS. 

After re-opening in September, Gary Walmsley, one of PATS coordinators and volunteers, noticed the Pet Café was subscribed to immediately. “The first Wednesday back we had 150 students turn up,” said Walmsley. 

With recent COVID-19 restrictions, the Pet Café has remained closed since the return of students after the winter break. However, beginning March 2, the Café will re-open with limited access, for now. 

The Multifaith Centre will again be hosting the trained members of PATS, and will offer cookies, coffee, or tea, every Wednesday, from 2:30 – 4:00 pm. There will be the option to visit two dogs inside the Multifaith Centre, or to visit four or five dogs outside the building in a covered area. 

“We have been there to simply provide emotional support. We don’t provide advice. We provide listening, and our dogs are all trained to be really good listeners. Sometimes, they’ll just cock an ear, look at the person in the eye and give them sympathy,” said Walmsley.

Julia Brusco, a second-year writing student from Brazil who’s dog Stark is back home, was feeling distressed after her parents’ visit to Canada came to an end. “I was feeling really homesick … so I decided to go meet some dogs.” said Brusco. 

According to Danzier, pets provide a safe and supportive presence for students. “I think a lot of students are really able to drop down and kind of let their guard down and just be with the pets and I think it’s very relaxing, and therapeutic to just slow down and cuddle.” 

The US National Library of Medicine, in investigating the benefits of interacting with animals on university students’ mood and anxiety, suggests there is evidence that dogs may help with anxiety and can boost happiness levels. 

While the Pet Café has offered weekly stress relief for busy students, they have been called upon to help with more serious and traumatic events UVic students have come up against. 

On Sept. 13, 2019, a bus carrying UVic students crashed and killed two people. The following day, spiritual care providers from the Pet Café, Multifaith Centre, and PATS, were called upon to help, and played an important role in supporting the survivors.

“We met in very small groups, or one on one, with many of the students who were still suffering from the immediate trauma,” said Walmsley.

Although there will only be dogs that are currently available when the Café reopens in March, there will soon be a cat joining the friendly pack. 

“A lot of the students have cats at home, they miss their cats. So, we love the fact that we will have a cat now again,” said Walmsley. 

The introduction of a cat can provide students with as much comfort as a dog, and encourages students who are cat people, or who may not be comfortable with dogs, to get the support they want or need.

While the cat is out of the bag, the identity of the friendly feline is under wraps for now.

For students like Brusco, connecting with animals in a time of stress can offer a moment of happiness and positivity. 

“It was just what I needed,” said Brusco about the Pet Café. “My heart was warm.”