On the Mic with Mike #8: Dr. Colleen Dell on the healing power of animals

In this latest episode, Dr. Michael Strong talks with Dr. Colleen Dell, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan, about her research on addictions, the integration of therapy animals in her health and wellness studies, work-life balance and what the future holds for her research.

This video was filmed in November 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for physical distancing.

Listen to the interview here or on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or Spotify.


Dr. Mike Strong: Well, welcome to this episode of On the Mic with Mike. Today we have a really great opportunity. We're here at the CIHR building, and Dr. Colleen Dell is going to be joining us. Colleen is a professor at University of Saskatchewan, and has for many years done some amazing work looking at everything from therapy dogs through to working with populations who are at high risk. It’s lots of interesting material. We're going to have that conversation just shortly. So why don't you join me for a cup of coffee? We're going to have a conversation with Dr. Colleen Dell.

Colleen, thank you for joining us today. This On the Mic with Mike is really meant to try and talk about what got us into science, and the things that excite you about it. I’m looking forward to our conversation.

Dr. Colleen Dell: Me too.

Dr. Strong: You’ve had a really fascinating career. First off, let me compliment you on your website. It is absolutely amazing. You know - the things that you've done and how you're communicating it. How did you get to do that many things? You obviously love it.

Dr. Dell: Yes, I do. Absolutely - I love it. I think probably my whole background is community based. So while I was doing my undergrad degree, I volunteered at the Elizabeth Fry Society of Manitoba. Then I got a job there as a contract poll officer. I worked with Human Resources Development Canada and ran a community program for youth. So my background is based in practice. Then I got the MA and the PhD. After the PhD I decided that I don't want to be an academic because there was a disconnect.

So I ended up with a joint position between an NGO - Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction - and Carleton University. So then they said that I could do both. That was a wonderful position because I felt like I got to do my university work. This was before we started talking a lot about knowledge translation and mobilization. We weren’t talking about that then. Even patient-oriented research or community based research was kind of on the periphery. I was able to merge those and it just kind of grew from there.

Dr. Strong: So what is the common theme of your research? What is it that you're trying to attain?

Dr. Dell: That's a really good question. The common theme throughout, I guess, is social change or social justice. It’s probably social justice - whether it's in the addictions field or mental health. Now some of the therapy dog work - we’re threading that in to lead to a healthier society. So it is about health. It's absolutely about health. But probably with this social justice slant, I think to it.

Dr. Strong: So one of the things that we're doing at CIHR is we're going through the strategic planning process. It's really something to see Canadians come to the table and express where they would like to see CIHR going. This whole issue of social inequities, and causes of social justice comes forward. And I often wonder when people look at that, what do they really mean? What do they think we understand about social justice or inequities of outcome? So how about yourself? How do you frame that?

Dr. Dell: I think probably for me that I can't really separate who I am as Colleen versus who I am as a scientist versus who I am as a family member. I think we've tried to do some of that in academia so I can put on my academic hat. I'm going to do that because science is supposed to be objective, and obviously there's a difference between the natural sciences and the social sciences. But I think if we can maintain what I want to see as a member of my community, as equity, with what I want to see make a healthy community, then I can make sure that it’s part of what I think about when I'm doing my research. That can be part of what make bench scientists too. It can address the topic they’re interested in, be it Alzheimer's or whatever else. I think we could do a better job of merging and marrying those two. Then we're all on a common ground. It's probably just about breaking down that hierarchy all of the time.

Dr. Strong: All right – I’m going to go a little bit further than that because I think I got told the other day that I'm a fly guy. I’m one of these Pillar 1 people who does fundamental cellular work. It's a line along a disease thing that we spend a lot of time on. But when I start to think about how would they line my work up and start to think about the social determinants of health or the inequities that exist out there for it. I struggle a bit with that. You know, I can certainly think of socioeconomic and geographic differences when it comes to disease. Is there a biological basis for that?

But immediately, as soon as I say that, I go there must be a biological basis that I can quantify. So what would your advice be to somebody like me?

Dr. Dell: I was around when CIHR was born.

I was around those tables at that time. We had neuroscience, mental health, and addiction. So we brought in the addictions folks to the very first meeting, and I remember it was me who was representing CCSA along with a number of mental health and a lot of neuroscientists. I think what CIHR has done really admirably is bring everyone together, but also recognize when we're developing teams, we don't have to bring that expertise over here. As you come to the table, and we have these interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary teams, you get excited because you hear how your colleague is going to take what you're doing or parts of it and put that into the community or change in the future.

So, for example, I learned so much about neuroscience. That was from my colleagues at those tables. I think you can even see how that is changing the addictions field. We talk about brain science. We know that there's a really important component there. So I'm sure the neuroscientists at the table are able to say: “Wow! Look at how the field has changed over these last decades! What I'm doing is really kind of learning over here.”

That's longer term. But I think about how on one of our teams, we have a veterinarian. I'm still working with some of the therapy dogs in an emergency department for people in pain. One thing that kept coming back from the emergency department was that we were the first one in Canada to have therapy dogs in the E.D.

Dr. Strong: Actually embedded in the E.D.?

Dr. Dell: Yes- they're visiting individuals who come in emotional pain or physical pain as well. So we linked up with a veterinarian at the University of Saskatchewan, Dr. Joe Rubin. One thing that keeps coming back is infectious diseases, saying: “I don't know about this – that’s an emergency environment. What's going on there?”

So I said: “Hey Joe, this is what we're doing. Maybe we can do a study with dogs to see if they're caring MRSA or whatever.“ He's so lovely to work with because he's a bench scientist and he does all this stuff around infectious disease and zoonotic diseases. As a veterinarian, he doesn't get to hear these stories about how the dogs are making an impact in the emergency department – and those narratives that go around that. I just love talking to him because he says: “Oh wow, Colleen! I could listen to these stories all day.”

Dr. Strong: So how did you end up there, then? Because it's fascinating. Now we're going talk a little bit about the dog therapy. How did you get there?

Dr. Dell: How did I get there? OK - true story. I was in the middle of academia - but I was done. I was in the addictions field for almost 20 years. I worked a lot with Indigenous populations, and I was working with the Thunderbird Partnership Foundation with support of CIHR for this project called ‘culture-as-intervention’. This importance of culture in healing from addiction was a huge project and it was so successful. All of that knowledge mobilization is still continuing through the Thunderbird Partnership Foundation, so I thought that was going to be the highlight of my career. That's it. We've made change and continue to do that. That is so satisfying. But I was also tired, when you're doing the same thing for quite a while.

Then I said to a friend that I’m thinking of leaving academia. I just felt like nothing was pushing me to think further - or what have you - because I had just been in it for so long. She said to me because I had a sabbatical coming up: ”Why don’t you just think of something that you love?”. And before she even finished her sentence, I said: “I love my dogs.” Then we started talking about something else. I can't remember this whole scenario though.

So I went home and I googled dogs and addiction. Then one study came up where these therapy dogs were in an addiction treatment facility and they saw that the therapeutic alliance between the therapist and the client was enhanced. So I said: “What’s a therapy dog?”. I figured that out, and googled lots of this confusing terminology in the field. I thought maybe for my sabbatical I can work with one of my dogs as a therapy dog. So I learned all about it. I did some training, and did some testing. In the end, all three of my dogs became therapy dogs. I just immersed myself in the field, and I just did thousands of hours of practice.

Dr. Strong: Well that’s fascinating because when you think about a sabbatical in an academic world, that's a period of time that you have to go away and pick up another set of skills. But almost always that's: “I'm going to go to somebody’s lab or I’m going to go into this experience and I'm going to bring it back.” But from what I understand you did not do that at all. You just developed it yourself.

Dr. Dell: The first thing I did was I went to Ohio and I went to something called Xtreme K9. I.spent three weeks there with one of my dogs learning dog psychology and working with dogs who had behavioral problems. I always remember the first question that they asked us in class was from the dog's perspective: “If you understood who I really am, would you still love me?”. I was like - what are we talking about here? This is my dog. I had no clue - zero clue - who that dog was. I had zero clue of their abilities. I knew they were sentient beings, but I had absolutely no understanding of what I thought I did.

So from that very first time, or those first three weeks, I was able to always make sure that animal welfare is at the centre of everything I'm doing because animals are not a tool for human health. So I have a Chair in health for animals, humans and the environment. By putting the animals’ welfare at the centre of everything we're doing, every grant we have, every question we have, we're always asking different questions. We're being forced to ask a different question - or a question with just a bit of a different kind of slant on it.

Dr. Strong: So it's interesting that you go there because that’s where we were going to end up.

This whole concept of one health. There's a lot of debate around one health and global health. Right?

Dr. Dell: One welfare.

Dr. Strong: Exactly. So when you’re thinking about one health – and I know that you’ve written about this – what does that mean to you? What does it look like?

Dr. Dell: Well, it’s interesting because when I talk about one health, I think what I’m really talking about is an Indigenous understanding of health for the animals, the humans, and the environment. So going back to the ‘culture-as-intervention’ work, our definition of wellness that came out of there was led by the leaders from across the country. It includes the wing themes. It includes the animals. It’s a different understanding. It includes community, and it includes the environment. So when we talk about one health now, which used to be called one medicine, it’s like I always start by saying that this in my understanding, and this is where I'm grounded. Has Western society taken a concept that already existed once again and said, “we're going to call it one health now”?

I was having a conversation with someone and another area of their university popped up, and they were using just another term. I thought: “Aren’t we kind of doing the same thing? Let's not make these divides. Let’s work together regardless of the terminology. Because whether you're in addictions, or you're in the animals field, we're always using and we're coming up with thinking that will help us make up this brand new thing. There's probably new seeds of understanding in other places. We need to bring those together.”

Dr. Strong: OK, fair enough. So how did you get into all of this? Did you just wake up one day and kind of go: “This is how I see my life unfolding”?

Dr. Dell: I think it just goes back to how do you make a difference in the community, right? In my community, where I came from in the north end of Winnipeg, it was not an affluent community in any way. So that's just part of who I am. There are so many inequities in that community. So many kids were hungry going to school. I didn't know anything else until I ventured out of the north end for my MA at the University of Manitoba. I didn't know there was anything else - but I also knew how privileged I was to have such a supportive family and the support of my teachers in particular. All of us did.

Dr. Strong:  Were there mentors in your life that helped guide you in this way, or was it a collective mentorship?

Dr. Dell: It was absolutely collective – absolutely. When I look back to who made a huge change, it was my grade 9 teacher, Mr. Allen. He was our basketball coach, and he was our English teacher. He just believed in us - no matter what. I remember playing games of basketball, and some teams wouldn't play against us because we were from the north end, or I played ringette for many years and the same thing would happen. You had all of those stereotypes and it just became: there’s just something wrong here. This is not right. Then you have individuals who don't do that and go that extra mile, I guess, or that extra level to support you and say: “Don't worry about that. We're all human. Let's do what we do and move forward and have that support.”

Dr. Strong: That’s sort of, I use the words, social consciousness, because I think it's the most common way to express that. But is that something you had going back to as an early teenager?

Dr. Dell: Absolutely.

Dr. Strong: Was your family that way?

Dr. Dell: No. My dad worked in a factory, and once I started school my mom was working as a teaching assistant in a school. But they were probably so different. He had lots of old world views, and she was always everybody is everybody - and we're all human. She still talks that way. It just became who I am.

Dr. Strong: One of the things we kind of chat about in these sessions is this concept of getting a work/life balance. You're probably the closest to anybody I've chatted with where it seems like the two are confluent.

Dr. Dell: Oh, yeah.

Dr. Strong: Fair enough. How do you make that work/life balance work for you? What do you do when you’re not doing this - or is this you all of the time?

Dr. Dell: It has become really apparent now working with the dogs. I've been doing that for five years – or six almost.

You know, that is such a hard question because they are so tied together, and I'm just going to give you one example of more of the challenge because that's probably where my head is at now. How do you make some of that? You don't necessarily have to make that distinction. Maybe that's what I'm grappling with.

But in one of our projects that we just released, we got substance use in addiction program funding from Health Canada. Our original funding started with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the CRISM (Canadian Research Initiative in Substance Misuse), and we had an initial grant through them and the Prairie node. We looked at the role of service dogs in PTSD for veterans with substance use disorders and, in particular, opioids.

At the very beginning, because I was just working with therapy dogs, these were dogs that would go out and visit people and we had done lots of studies around that. Then someone approached me from the Audeamus Service Dog organization and said: “Hey, do you want to work on service dogs with us? Because we want to show that there are benefits. We have these incredible stories, and we need the evidence.” I said that “I don’t really know service dogs. I know therapy dogs. But OK - I'll come out and see what it's all about.” So I came to Ottawa with their group, and met some of the veterans for two days and their dogs. I was just blown away again by what these dogs were able to do for the veterans.

Dr. Strong: So you’re going to have to help me on that one because I wouldn't have known that there was a difference.

Dr. Dell: Oh – OK. So there are four categories. There is the companion animal at home that people have a bond with.

Dr. Strong: Like the ones who used to chase me when I was out delivering a newspaper?

Dr. Dell: Yeah. That’s the one. That’s a companion animal. And then we have therapy dogs. These are the three that I have, and basically they just go out into the community. They're really friendly family pets that love people. So if they were people, they would be extroverts. They get tested so that they won't bite and they're really happy when they're out. Then we have emotional support animals. This is a new category. Usually they're just allowed into housing. These are people who have a bond with the animal for mental health reasons usually - but these dogs have no training. But it's a real support for that individual.

Then there are service dogs. With service dogs, there are usually two sides. There's the bond that they have with their individual and there's also the technical skills. So you'd be most familiar with a guide dog. They have lots of technical skills. We have dogs that can detect seizures, and all types of things. Now service dogs for veterans with PTSD have the technical things where they would be able to wake up the veteran out of a nightmare. But there's also that bond. It’s a real motivating component for a veteran to get out of the house and kind of push their life forward.

Dr. Strong: Yeah - OK. Well let me ask you a question. This will be my final question coming forward.

In a perfect world, where would you see all of this research landing?

Dr. Dell: If it was a perfect world, where would I see this landing? What do you mean by “landing”?

Dr. Strong: I’m talking about if you're looking 10-15 years down the road and thinking about everything that you're doing now.

You're one of the few people I've talked to that has tied together so many critical pieces of what's happening in society - from whether it’s PTSD, whether it’s the opioid addiction crisis, or so on. It is probably the most complex issue because from a society point of view it touches everybody. You're really at the edge of that. So if all went well, and 15 or 20 years from now, you're sitting back and relaxing going: “Wow, this worked.” What would that look like?

Dr. Dell: I think - compassion. I think that people had more compassion.

I think we're able to do that through the addictions work because that's so important to people's recovery and their well-being. I think it's through the dogs and talking about animals, talking about one’s health that we're able to talk about compassion - without it being human to human, right? When we talk about it, we talk about love, and measuring love. As an academic, if I'm talking about love - people are like: “whatever”. But if I could talk about it through the dog, there is a difference, right? And when that individual says: “Wow! I don't feel judged with the dog and I get to see these miraculous things, and they really are, and changes in lives because of that bond in that relationship.” I hope that we collectively can learn from that, and put it into our own lives and how we treat each other.

Dr. Strong: Colleen, this has been an amazing conversation. We could go on for another hour or two. I really appreciate you taking time for us, and I wish you nothing but great success with this. Thank you. I’ll be keeping an eye out on your work. It's wonderful.

Dr. Dell: Thank you.

Dr. Strong: Thank you - and take care. That’s it for another episode of On the Mic with Mike. We'll see you soon for another one. Take care.

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