by Judy Beltzner
When I was hospitalized as a child to have my tonsils and adenoids removed, I would never have expected to see a dog on my surgical ward – though I would have loved to! Now, patients and their families at many hospitals, including the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO), can have their days brightened and their recoveries improved by visits from Ottawa Therapy Dogs.
Goals in animal-assisted therapy (AAT) are different depending on each child’s needs and can include both physical and emotional goals. For example, a child who had not left his room since his surgery heard that a dog was visiting and asked to be taken to the ‘playroom’ for a cuddle. A child whose right arm was resistant to physiotherapy stretched out her fingers to pet the dog on the sofa beside her. The joy on these patients’ faces is mirrored by their parents, who see the improvement, and by staff, for whom the dogs provide a welcome bit of stress relief.
Michèle Taché is a child life specialist who has collaborated with teams from Ottawa Therapy Dogs for many years in her role at CHEO. According to Taché, “Integrating AAT into child life programming enhances the treatment milieu and demonstrates an investment in the psychosocial adaptation and development of children and youth facing illness, injury and treatment — especially for patients who experience multiple admissions or may be hospitalized for extensive periods of time. It brings a comforting touch and smiles all around.”
With eight teams that visit CHEO, Ottawa Therapy Dogs’ reach has grown over the years to include both on-site and off-site programs. One of these teams is Isaac, a four-year-old yellow lab, and his self-labelled “Uber driver”, Julie Jolicoeur.
Isaac and Julie have been visiting CHEO since March 2018 and alternate weekly visits to the Traumatic Care Injury unit and the inpatient Eating Disorders Program. Julie’s route to CHEO stems from her former career as a paramedic. After she retired with PTSD, she still wanted to do something to help others and volunteered to raise Isaac on behalf of Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind with the idea that he would eventually be trained as a guide dog for a visually impaired person. She got him as an eight-week-old puppy and he went for guide dog training at CGDB when he was just over a year old. However, Isaac was released from their program because, to quote Julie, “He had only one speed: slow!”
Ottawa Therapy Dogs has a stringent evaluation process, but Isaac easily qualified as a therapy dog and also passed the second level of testing, which is required before therapy dog teams can work with children. He thrives at CHEO – in fact, Julie says he has found a half-gear higher!
Dr. Gary Richter, a veterinary heath expert and author of The Ultimate Pet Health Guide, says: “Just like people, some dogs really like having purpose in their day. While they may not think about it in quite the same terms as us, dogs like to have a job to do.” Julie says it’s “pure magic” to watch Isaac with children at CHEO – it’s as if he is finally doing what he was always meant to do.
In the Eating Disorders Program, Isaac meets with patients either individually or in a group. The patients are 12 years old and older, mostly girls, and are in the program for six to 12 weeks. Isaac is their rock star – they line up down the hallway to see him. A calmness comes over them when they enter the room and they become kids again, often lying all around Isaac on the floor. They may talk — or not — during their time with him. They seem to release their tension, unwind, maybe even nap. And Isaac has the ability to sense what each youth needs from him and adapts to each one of them.
Julie recalls a special encounter with a 14-year-old boy in the Traumatic Care Injury unit. He was just out of chemotherapy and feeling very weak. Isaac lay down on the boy’s bed and gently laid his head on his chest. One tear slowly rolled down the boy’s cheek, expressing what he couldn’t say in words. That visit went on longer than usual as Isaac brought his magic to comfort a child who really needed him.
In another memorable visit, a girl hadn’t left her room in months until she came to see Isaac. A visit with him got her motivated to shower and come to the playroom, and later she even went to the coffee shop. In another case, a five-year-old abuse survivor came out of his shell to relate to Isaac and even made artwork for the dog between visits. They both seemed to know how special their time together was – as the boy approached, Isaac’s tail started to wag and the boy’s eyes lit up. They greeted each other with a hug and both sighed when it was time to leave.
Julie has also taken Isaac to visit children at an autism therapy camp where very busy four- and five-year-olds took turns leading Isaac around the unit on a double leash, walking between Isaac and Julie. This activity forced them to slow down, focus and be gentle as they directed Isaac around the block.
Why has Julie made the commitment to take time out of her life every week to bathe and groom Isaac before making the trip to CHEO as an Ottawa Therapy Dogs team? As she says, “Isaac is a once-in-a-lifetime dog. It would be a waste and a shame not to share him.”
And there is no doubt that patients, their families and the staff at CHEO agree!
Judy Beltzner has been a member of Ottawa Therapy Dogs since 2010. Currently an associate member, Judy is a past Director on Ottawa Therapy Dogs’ Board of Directors and was part of a therapy dog team — with Tigger, her beautiful black lab/golden retriever cross — that also visited CHEO’s Traumatic Care Injury unit several years ago. Tigger was born to be a guide dog and when seizures prevented him from pursuing that career, Judy determined that he could serve people in a different way. He brought much comfort to hospitalized children and their families, and also loved being read to by children at local libraries as part of the Reading Education Assistance Dogs® (R.E.A.D.®) program.