By Frank Pingue
TORONTO (Reuters) - Unlike the stray dogs that were a common sight at the Sochi Olympics, the canines running around the Athletes' Village at the Pan American Games in Toronto are intentionally there to help competitors release stress.
In what is being called a first for the quadrennial multi-sport competition between countries from North America, Latin America, South America and the Caribbean, athletes can seek out the unconditional love of a dog.
"The athletes are probably feeling homesick, stressed," said Margo Mackay, a handler of one of the dogs.
"Regardless of whether you won or lost, what language you speak or what country you are from, the dogs will love you and greet you the same way."
Any of the nearly 7,000 athletes from 41 countries competing at the Pan Am Games can arrange a two-hour visit with a therapy dog who is traditionally used to help with hospital patients and the elderly who may feel lonely or isolated.
The 125 dogs are of various breeds and range from 1-year-old puppies to more mature dogs. And just like the athletes at the Pan Am Games, not any dog can make the cut.
"They have to be laid back and enjoy being petted and enjoy companionship," said Mackay.
Last year's Sochi Olympics highlighted the number of stray dogs roaming the city, with rights activists campaigning to save them after a company was given a contract to round them up.
Many athletes in Russia adopted a dog, and in some cases more than one, before returning home.
(Editing by Andrew Both)