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May 2018

A Therapy Dog with a Disability Inspires Hope

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By Julianne Labreche

Whenever Sandy, a Shetland Sheepdog from Ottawa Therapy Dogs, walks cheerfully down the hallways of The Ottawa Hospital Rehabilitation Centre (TOHRC) doing his rounds, patients and staff often pause for a visit. After some pats and cuddles with the spunky little therapy dog, they turn to Dona Bowers, his handler, with almost invariably the same question: “What happened to his leg?”

Dona has a ready reply, having answered the same question many times in the past. She is a familiar face during her weekly visits to TOHRC where she volunteers with Sandy. Together, the team spends time with patients who are working hard to regain their independence and achieve progress with their physical rehabilitation.

In the spring of 2014, about six months after she and Sandy were tested and passed Ottawa Therapy Dogs’ evaluation, her much-loved pet had a terrible accident. It could have been a lot worse, she recounts. Tragically, the little dog had a ‘run-in’ with a dump truck. Dona rushed him to the veterinarian who recommended amputating his rear leg.

Fortunately, after surgery and some at-home rehabilitation, Sandy made a fine recovery. Nowadays, at nine years of age, the Sheltie confidently continues to manage his day-to-day life as a tripawd dog with a disability. He walks amazingly well on three legs.

The disability could have marked a sad ending to Sandy’s still-to-be-launched therapy dog career. Instead, it turned into a hopeful new beginning. Soon after Sandy’s recovery, Dona heard about an opening for a therapy dog team at the rehabilitation centre. “I thought, what could be a more perfect spot than that? “ she says. “I asked OTD to go there.”

On the wards, Dona and Sandy visit with patients with varying physical disabilities, including those who have had limbs amputated and those who propel themselves with the use of manual or electric wheelchairs. There is lots of work ahead for these patients, booked for regular physiotherapy and occupational therapy sessions. It is also a journey for these men and women to regain hope as they learn to adapt to life with a disability. Sandy helps many of them on that journey.

It is a significant commitment of time and energy for Dona, a busy woman herself. The family physician is edging towards retirement while continuing to work off and on delivering babies. In her volunteer job, each therapy dog visit with Sandy involves grooming and brushing the little dog, preparing him to look his best for visits.

Many patients eagerly look forward to these regular visits. Elaina Billings is one of those patients. “I just love animals,” she says, meeting Sandy for the first time just a day after her arrival on the ward. She is desperately missing her two cats – an eight-year-old male named Eddie and a three-year-old female, Echo. While she remains in hospital, both pets are cared for at home by her mother.

Her own journey has not been easy. She was born with spina bifida, a birth defect caused when the bones of the spine don’t form properly. She was admitted to the hospital in late October and her difficult acute patient stay included time in intensive care with serious respiratory problems. After nearly five and a half months, she is excited about coming to rehabilitation. Eventually, after some hard work, she looks forward to returning home for good. She knows that her cats are waiting.

“I was excited when I heard that Sandy and Dona were going to be here,” she says. “There are lots of studies that say that animals calm you down. I’ve had cats all my life.”

Her love of animals also extends to horses. When she was a little girl, she worked to improve her balance and confidence by practicing therapeutic riding. She laughs when she remembers how she started on a small pony and, after five years of practice, she was riding the tallest horse in the stable.

After his longer-than-usual visit on Elaina’s lap, Sandy hops down, off to visit with more patients. Before long, the little dog and his handler will head home. It’s clear that both of them enjoy these visits immensely.

Julianne Labreche has been a member of Ottawa Therapy Dogs since 2000. Currently an associate member, Julianne is a past Director on Ottawa Therapy Dogs’ Board of Directors and was a therapy dog team with her previous dog, Paugan, a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever. She is also the author of “The Woman Who Lost Her Words, A Story About Stroke, Speech and Some Healing Pets” based on her experience with animal-assisted therapy using Paugan in her work in speech therapy.