Saskatchewan Researcher is First to Show Service Dogs Can Prevent Suicide

May 15, 2022

Pain sociology expert Alexandria Pavelich among leading line-up of speakers at Congress 2022, Canada’s largest humanities and social sciences conference, taking place virtually May 12-20 

Saskatoon, Sask., May 9, 2022 – Every day, an estimated 11 Canadians will die by suicide, brought on by overwhelming feelings of depression, loneliness and hopelessness, and a sense that they just don’t matter. Now, for the first time, a Saskatchewan researcher has shown there is one bond that can make a difference between whether they choose to live or to die: the relationship between them and their dog. 

After setting out to prove that “mattering” — a validated construct shown to reduce suicidal behavior when people feel they are valued by others — can also exist between people and their pets, Alexandria Pavelich, a PhD student researcher in the University of Saskatchewan’s Office of One Health & Wellness, is on a mission to spread awareness that service dogs not only save lives, but are an effective support to help mitigate the growing mental health crisis in this country. 

Pavelich will be sharing this message as a featured speaker at the upcoming Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences (Congress 2022), Canada’s largest academic gathering and one of the most comprehensive in the world, taking place virtually this year from May 12-20.

Billed as a leading conference on the critical conversations of our time, Congress 2022 serves as a platform for the unveiling of thousands of research papers and presentations from social sciences and humanities experts worldwide. With more than 6,000 visitors expected to log in, the event focuses on reimagining the future following two years of the COVID-19 pandemic and other life-altering world events, with the goal of inspiring ideas, dialogue and action that create a more diverse, sustainable, democratic and just future.  

“We need to start recognizing that there are animal-assisted interventions that can help improve people’s mental health,” said Pavelich, whose interest in the value of animals as a social support system was sparked growing up on a Saskatchewan farm, when her companion dog became her biggest support during her parents’ divorce. 

“When people are suffering from trauma or substance use, and need 24/7 support, they can’t always get that in a busy emergency department,” she added. “A dog always seems to understand, love and accept, and is non-judgmental in ways that humans sometimes are not.” 

Pavelich’s first-of-its-kind study — completed as part of a broader study led by University of Saskatchewan sociology professor Colleen Dell — followed four Canadian veterans over a 16-month period as they were paired with service dogs to help them deal with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance use and suicidal ideation. What she found is that the dogs were a direct catalyst in preventing suicidality among the veterans, and helped to make them feel socially supported. 

“The veterans reported that they had tried all sorts of therapy, been on all types of medication, and yet nothing really improved in their lives until they got their dogs,” said Pavelich, adding that service dogs were also seen as acceptable whereas other mental health interventions were viewed as stigmatizing. “They repeatedly shared how their dogs literally saved their lives and it was the dogs that seemed to bring together all their efforts at various treatments,” she said. 

There are seven different markers used to measure mattering, to show that a person feels significant in the eyes of others and that someone else cares about their fate. When analyzing the in-depth interviews with veterans, conducted every three months, Pavelich discovered all seven markers were present: attention, importance, dependence, appreciation, individuation (feeling special), noted absence (feeling missed) and ego-extension (someone else is emotionally invested in you.) The finding is important, she says, because it shows service dogs have a unique role to play in providing therapeutic benefits and reducing distressing physiological symptoms. 

For example, one veteran shared how he had carefully planned his suicide and had left the country to carry through with it. When he found himself in his hotel room with his service dog, he looked down and found he couldn’t go through with it, she explained.

“He turned around, went back home and now he’s thriving, but if he didn’t have his dog there for support, who knows if he would have killed himself?” said Pavelich. 

Pavelich’s findings are now part of a freely available toolkit for Service Dog Organizations to inform service dog trainers about how service dogs can play an important role in substance use recovery and peer support. With the Canadian Mental Health Association reporting that one in five Canadians will personally experience a mental health problem or illness in any given year, she hopes other groups will take note of the broader implications of her work as well. 

“The human-animal bond and the strong social support it provides can be the primary mental health support for people,” said Pavelich, who last month was awarded an “Outstanding Graduating Sociology Student” award at the Master’s level from the Canadian Sociological Association (CSA). “We need people to start realizing: service dogs can improve our mental health.” 

Organized by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, Congress 2022 is sponsored by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Mitacs, SAGE Publishing, Universities Canada, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, and University Affairs. 

Registration – which includes 100+ keynote and open Congress 2022 sessions (with recordings available until June 3, 2022) – is $55. Visit to register for a community pass and access the program of events open to the public. Use coupon code TRANSITIONS2022 for 10% off registration. 


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