Thompson Rivers University

Making a canine connection: Tips for Therapy Dog Thursdays

January 11, 2023

Student Wellness Ambassador and Storyteller Samiul Khan was curious but nervous about Therapy Dog Thursdays and wanted to learn how to connect in a way that felt safe for him, so he reached out to St. John Ambulance representatives Trudie BonBernard and Bridget Jensen to get some tips. 

Therapy Dogs Thursdays is a collaboration between the TRU Wellness Centre and St. John Ambulance. Even though this is a popular event with many health and wellness benefits, not everyone feels comfortable around dogs.

If you’d like to make a canine connection, therapy dogs are perfect for interacting with because they have all been evaluated for temperament. Therapy dogs are well-trained pets who live and travel with a family. Some even sleep on their owner’s bed! Here are some tips from the St John’s Ambulance reps to approach dogs safely. 

Love them from a distance. If you are nervous around dogs, don’t feel you should touch or hug them. Instead, standing back and watching how others interact will warm your heart. You can also talk to St John’s Ambulance reps to learn about the dogs and their training.

Be wise and sanitize. If you are allergic, sanitize your hands before and after you pet the dogs. The most common allergy symptom is itchy skin in one area or all over the body. In addition, some symptoms involve the respiratory system, coughing, sneezing and/or wheezing.

Take baby steps. If you feel brave enough to interact, let the owners know about your fear. Slowly move your hand in front of the dog so it can smell you. Don’t be surprised if they back away. They have fantastic noses and can smell 400 per cent better than we can. They can react to the smell of hand lotion, hand sanitizer, perfume, aftershave, soap, sunscreen or insect repellent. After an initial sniff, the dog usually moves forward for a second sniff. If you want to pet the dogs, give them a gentle pet on their foreheads. Dogs usually like pets on their ears, shoulders and back area.

Don’t poke the bear. Keep your hands away from their eyes and muzzle until the dog gets to know you. Then you can ask the owner what their dog prefers. For example, some dogs turn around to get their sides and rumps rubbed. Other dogs might put their head in a lap to get their ears scratched. Be mindful of the dog’s behaviour to ensure they are comfortable — consent matters to dogs too!

Don’t skip a beat, feed a treat. If you want to offer the dog an owner-supplied snack, open your hand flat like a dish and put the treat in your palm. Doing will help avoid dogs nibbling on your fingers. Some dogs are very gentle nibblers and won’t bite at your fingers intentionally.

Control your excitement. Loud voices can startle a dog, which could then scare you! Instead, speak in a conversational tone as you would with the owner. Yelling at the dog, even with a happy, excited tone, can startle a dog, and so can clapping your hands. Remember to approach a dog from the front — swooping in on a dog from behind can startle and scare them.  If you are ever scared of a dog you see on the street, try to stand very still (like a tree) with your hands at your sides. Step aside and let the dog pass. 

Follow these tips to get comfortable with these cuddly little ambassadors the next time you see them, and don’t forget to tell them that they are super cute!

Meet the therapy dogs every Thursday on Student Street from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Learn more about resources and opportunities at

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