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To date, research on canine-assisted interventions has focused on identifying the effects of spending time with therapy dogs on the well-being of participants and, to a lesser extent, exploring the effects of canine-assisted interventions on therapy dogs as a means of safeguarding canine welfare. Little empirical attention has focused on understanding the experience of volunteer canine handlers – agents at the heart of the success of canine-assisted interventions. The aim of this exploratory research was to first capture the voice of handlers to better understand their experience as volunteers and second to provide preliminary insights into their well-being. Sixty volunteer handlers with varying volunteer experience with a canine therapy program at a mid-size Canadian university responded to a series of open-ended prompts related to their volunteer work and completed a battery of well-being measures. Qualitative findings revealed that most participants identified social benefits to volunteering for themselves (64%) and for their dog (55%). The perceived impact on students (33%) and the ability to help university students (36%) were the most rewarding aspects of volunteering. Although drawn to volunteer by the program itself (36%), motivations to continue volunteering were predominantly associated with personal benefits of volunteering (44%). Most handlers reported no challenges associated with volunteering (73%) and qualified their dog as happy after sessions (71%). Participants commonly described good therapy dogs as relaxed, calm, and respectful (66%) and strong handlers as having good awareness of their dog (48%). Quantitative findings revealed volunteer handlers reported elevated levels of positive affect (p = < 0.001, d = 1.19), greater satisfaction with life (p = < 0.001, d = 0.85) and lower levels of avoidant attachment to their therapy dog (p = < 0.001, d = -1.16) when compared to normative samples. Implications for the governing of on-campus programs and handler well-being are discussed.
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