Meet Riley: Elmwood’s New Therapy Dog!

Exam season has officially begun for our middle and senior school girls -- and although that means summer break is just around the corner, the end of term can also be stressful for many students. With this in mind, we are always looking for innovative ways to help boost student health and wellness, especially during this busy time of year. One such initiative is the new Therapy Dog Program, which launched here at Elmwood in April 2019. 

The Therapy Dog Program was created by Ms. Tanja Mackin, Elmwood’s Director of Finance and Administration. Ms. Mackin has been volunteering with a non-profit organization called Ottawa Therapy Dogs for over 15 years, and she is thrilled to be bringing the program, along with her 9-year-old golden retriever, Riley, to the school. “People just feel happier after spending time with a therapy dog,” she says. “It elicits a lot of good feelings, and it can be very therapeutic.”

In addition to boosting feelings of happiness, therapy dogs have also been shown to decrease blood pressure, help people sleep, and calm those who are stressed. Research into the effects of therapy dogs in schools has also shown a range of benefits, including improved confidence and motivation, decreased learner anxiety, and enhanced relationships with teachers and peers. 

Not just any dog can become a therapy dog though. As Ms. Mackin notes, “The dogs have to be friendly, and good with large groups and children.” The dogs are also required to take a test before becoming certified, which ensures they can remain calm and collected in a variety of circumstances. Riley passed his test with flying colours roughly seven years ago, and has been working as a therapy dog ever since. In addition to spending time with students at Elmwood, he has also provided support at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre, and currently visits residents at a local group home.

Therapy dog handlers, like Ms. Mackin, also undergo their own training and testing. This includes learning how to approach clients safely and respectfully, and understanding the rules around visiting guests. The three most important rules are that the dog must be well groomed and clean at all times; he must always be on a leash; and he cannot accept treats from the people he visits. These standards help to ensure the Therapy Dog Program remains safe and enjoyable for all those involved. 

The Therapy Dog Program at Elmwood is still very much in its early stages, but the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive so far. During the recent MAP Testing, Riley provided respite for Junior School girls looking to de-stress between tests; this week, he returned to spend time with our older students as they prepared for finals. 

Our Grade 4 class was lucky enough to visit with Riley on his first trip to Elmwood, and many of them said they felt more cheerful afterwards. As one student remarked, “I think [the therapy dog program] is really nice, because if a kid is having a bad day, seeing Riley can turn things around. It makes you feel all warm inside when you see a puppy!”

Ms. Mackin agrees. “Especially around now, with exam time, it’s great for kids to have time with Riley; to bring those endorphins up and stress levels down,” she says. “You forget all your other troubles, and Riley gets his belly rubs in. It’s good for the dog and it’s good for the kids.” 

To learn more about Therapy Dog programs, visit the Ottawa Therapy Dog website at