One of the province’s most successful therapy dog programs just added a few members to its roster.
The Comox Valley St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program qualified four new dogs – and their owners – this week.
The new dogs to the program include a keeshond named Indy, a standard poodle named Emilee, a short-coat collie named Blue, and Chay, a Great Pyrenees.
The newcomers will have plenty of work to keep them busy. The local program makes regular stops at seven schools, four seniors’ centres, as well as St. Joseph’s Hospital.
“We have 36 dogs now, with the new ones coming in this week,” said program facilitator Dave Fletcher. “The therapy dog division itself did 5,555 hours of community work locally last year. So, we are a busy lot.
“Those numbers make us the busiest on the Island and second overall in B.C., behind only Kelowna.”
The qualification procedure includes a two-hour meeting and a 90-minute evaluation, or “practical” test, with dog and owner.
“Not all the dogs pass – we test for obedience, temperament and socialization,” said Fletcher. “We have about a dozen scenarios, to see how the dog reacts in unfamiliar circumstances – how it responds around wheelchairs, canes, crutches and all that sort of stuff.”
The St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program started in Peterborough, Ont. in 1992.
It quickly spread across the country, arriving in B.C. in1999. By December of that year, the program had reached the Comox Valley.
Fletcher was in the very first class.
“It started out just working at St. Joseph’s Hospital. Now we are at St. Joe’s – both The Views and the psych ward. We are in Glacier View Lodge, Casa Loma Seniors’ Village, Cumberland Care and Abbeyfield House,” he said. “Schools-wise we are in five elementary schools and two senior high schools.”
At Mark Isfeld, the dogs are used in a Lifeskills class.
“This is the fourth year that Lifeskills has participated in the therapy dog program,” said Lifeskills teacher Keith Keller.
“The dogs have positive effects on various students in various ways. For example, we have a non-verbal, physically dependent student who doesn’t react in a big way to much of the activity around her, but who lights up when the dogs enter the room. They will jump up and sit on a chair beside her and allow her to dig her hand into their soft fur .
“Another example is a Lifeskills student who used to be terrified of dogs. After four years of having the dogs in our classroom… he has lost much of that fear — to the point where he can even be encouraged to pat them at times. This behaviour has now generalized — he can walk in the community while only giving dogs a wide berth rather than panicking as he used to.”
Fletcher said there are some lasting memories that come with dog therapy sessions.
“Dementia patients, they may not remember their spouse, they may not remember their children, but they always seem to remember they had pets,” he said. “I had one chap, sitting there with my Magic (Fletcher’s dog, a Samoyed) and he said ‘Snowball! My dog’s name was Snowball!’ – because he had the same breed of dog.
The dog was her homework
North Island College nursing student Kyra Devers has first-hand experience with the benefits of therapy dogs.
“When I was 15, I was super depressed with the usual hormone issues, and my parents got me a dog. I had it for 10 years and the benefits that dog gave me… she made me happy,” said Devers. “Suddenly I was getting up in the morning, just to take her for a walk, whereas before that I would sleep all day. So I always appreciated her.”
Her experience was one source of inspiration for a college paper she wrote on the subject.
She said that using animals in a therapeutic manner is quite an old method. She has even found quotes from Florence Nightingale – the founder of modern nursing – saying that for long-term patients, having a pet to interact with can help with the healing process.
She received an ‘A’ on her paper.
Devers also provided a practical application of therapy dogs at the college during final exam week.
“This entire semester in school I have been tutoring the second-year students in pathology,” she said. “So I arranged through Dave to get some dogs brought out just before the final exam. I remember writing that exam a year ago and everyone was anxious, everyone was worried. Pathology is a pretty hard topic.
“It’s been proven that petting a dog releases endorphins and increases cortisol level, increases serotonin, can lower your blood pressure… and in that way I was hoping that the students would relate to the dogs, would de-stress, and there wouldn’t be that tension when they went in for their exam. I mean I am sure there still was (tension), but people were laughing and joking as they went in, and it looked like I left them in a great atmosphere. I was really happy with how it turned out.”
So says the “salesperson”. What about the students themselves?
Karin Gage was one of those stressing outside the auditorium on exam day. She attested that the dogs had the desired effect.
“I found the dogs to be very relaxing and playful which helped take the stress and anxiety away from writing a final exam,” said Gage. “I do not have a dog of my own to provide me with a relaxing mindset, so having these dogs to pet before an exam was wonderful.”
Fletcher said anyone interested in registering their dog for the pet therapy program is welcome to call the local St. John Ambulance office, to get the process started.
Size of the dogs are not an issue.
“We’ve had everything from a three-pound Yorkie to a 100-pound great Dane,” said Fletcher. “In fact, one of the new ones this week is a 110-pound Pyrenees.”