by Karen Luker
As most kids are preoccupied with settling into a new school year and excitedly anticipating Hallowe’en, some have a different path. The children of Roger Neilson House in Ottawa are kids with complex medical needs whose parents have sought respite or assistance with pain management and sometimes end of life. The space is warm and inviting, the signs of caring and compassion abound.
Enter Jake, also known as a “professional snuggler.” Jake is an 11-year-old standard poodle who, like most dogs, has his quirks: he is klutzy, loves to wear costumes, and dances when it’s time to leave the house. But as soon as he dons his Ottawa Therapy Dogs scarf, he knows he is on the job. Jake very willingly jumps onto children’s beds as soon as he’s invited, where he will lie calmly and deliver cuddles for as long as he’s permitted.
“Jake gently leads me right up to the people who need it most,” says Chantel Hutter, Jake’s owner and the second half of this therapy dog team. “He steers me toward a person. He’s very in tune with how people are feeling. I’m not sure you can train for that, to seek out someone who needs it, and to gently just be there. It’s a beautiful skill he has.”
Research suggests that pet visitation can be a useful adjunct to traditional pain management for children. With the increased acceptance of complementary and alternative medicine, therapies that exploit the benefits of the human-animal bond have become an integral part of care in many healthcare settings. And unlike many medical or pharmacological treatments, a visit with a therapy dog has an abundance of positive side effects.
Sarah, one of the children at Roger Neilson House, is old enough to use a pain pump to manage her symptoms. Following her first visit with Jake, she proudly reported she had only used her pump eleven times as opposed to the one hundred times she typically pressed the button daily. “It’s all about giving the person some time to focus on something other than the pain. Snuggly love totally changes what you are thinking about,” says Chantel.
She fondly recalls a toddler who had never met a dog before. Jake and Chantel were invited into their room. As the little girl put her tiny fingers around Jake’s paw, her breathing slowed and she drifted off to sleep. Her parents expressed a tremendous amount of gratitude for what seemed like a simple visit, indicates Chantel. In reality, the two-year-old had not been able to sleep for over 24 hours because of her pain, until Jake came along and changed her experience.
While Jake’s presence helps to reduce children’s perception of physical pain, Chantel evokes countless situations where emotional pain has been the target of his intervention. Children, their parents and siblings, and of course the House’s staff have all benefited from Jake’s affection. Chantel describes the immense privilege of being asked to visit a family whose child had just passed away. In a tender gesture of solidarity, Chantel and Jake went into their room to be with the family while they made peace with their new reality. Jake’s presence was comforting with his relaxed demeanour and deep, instinctive understanding.
But the story doesn’t end there. While Jake enriches the lives of many at Roger Neilson House in his role with Ottawa Therapy Dogs, he also helps to monitor and ease Chantel’s chronic pain. Chantel lives with fibromyalgia, and says Jake has provided motivation, unconditional love, and tender support during her most difficult times. Jake senses when an acute episode of pain is imminent or when she needs to focus on her breathing to reduce the pain, and physically directs Chantel to her resting space at home or to take a break at work. So Jake is now doing double-duty. And loving every minute of it.
Karen Luker has been a member of Ottawa Therapy Dogs since 2006. Currently an associate member, she visited the Bruyère Continuing Care Palliative Care Unit weekly for eight years with her miniature dachshund, Gogo. She is also the author of “Un chien dans ma chambre? La médiation animale en soins palliatifs”, published in Ces animaux qui aiment autrement (2015), a book on the many benefits of the animal-human bond.