by Julianne Labreche
Kids on the autism spectrum are like colors in a rainbow. Depending on their abilities and their disabilities, every child is different. Some may be intellectually brilliant but have limited social skills. Others may have anxiety or anger issues, communication disorders, or an intense aversion to certain sounds or textures. For some, even small, everyday changes to a routine can be upsetting. For others, there may be a tendency towards repetitive, sometimes bizarre, behaviors.
Later in their lives, if lucky, some of these kids with exceptional talents may excel and attend university. Others, less gifted intellectually or socially, will always be heavily reliant on support from their family and community. No matter the child however, many children on the autism spectrum in a program operated by the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) have been helped by a gentle giant of a therapy dog named Clarence.
During his all-too-short life, Clarence was part of the Steps to Success Day Treatment Program, a community school focused on mental health and education operated in Ottawa’s east end by CHEO. Once a week, this dog and his volunteer handler, Mary Lou Trappitt, visited M.F. McHugh Education Centre together. The therapy dog team worked there with therapists to assist children, including those on the autism spectrum, with different treatment goals. Often, these focused on improving important behavioral, social and communication skills– maintaining good eye contact, asking questions, good listening skills and turn taking skills in a conversation, for instance.
Their pattern of weekly visits was always the same. Every Thursday, about 9:30 a.m., Mary Lou and Clarence– a white, wire-haired Spinone Italiano breed that is little known in North America– would make their way down the long hallway of the centre and up three flights of stairs to the workroom of Denise De Laat, a registered occupational therapist. Along the way, there were always multiple stops to greet the students, all with special needs.
“It could take awhile to get upstairs,” Mary Lou, a retired CHEO employee and great grandmother, fondly recollects. “The kids would always ask me, ‘Oh, do we get to see Clarence today. Is it our day?’”
Which students had a special visit with the therapy dog that day, sprawled out on a big mat in the workroom, depended on who most needed help. Some kids needed to relax and de-stress, as behavioral issues are common with autism. “Some of the kids could be really hyper, real loud. Clarence never changed with them. Then they’d start to calm down, start to interact, start feeling better about themselves,” Mary Lou recounts.
Each week, children of different ages visited Clarence two by two for visits of ten or fifteen minutes. Usually, eight to ten children shared time with Clarence before Mary Lou packed up to leave. Some were afraid of dogs but Clarence helped them overcome their fears. Some rarely spoke to others but willingly asked questions about the dog. Others didn’t like human touch but willingly patted Clarence, or at least sat quietly next to the dog for a visit. Always, it was small steps forward, collaborating with the therapist.
She remembers one boy who didn’t like to be touched but could rhyme off countless details about domestic and wild animals, or wars. He always wanted to visit with Clarence and touch the dog. Another boy on the autism spectrum had many fears, including a fear of dogs. With Clarence, some of his fears were overcome.
“Clarence was quite a beautiful dog. He was also very low key. When a child was anxious or nervous, Clarence read the child very well. He’d move closer. He’d pause. He’d let the kids pat him, “ Denise De Laat remembers. “As he aged, he was even more low key.”
After three years of volunteering however, everything changed. On December 27, 2017, Clarence needed an operation to remove a leg because of bone cancer. Soon after, get well cards, drawings and crafts for Clarence arrived from the students. After a successful surgery and rehabilitation, Mary Lou sent a video and a photo of her healthy-again three-legged dog to share with the school. Students and staff missed him and wanted him back. The response was overwhelmingly positive and enthusiastic. Clarence’s vet encouraged the team to return whenever the dog was ready. So, Clarence returned to work in February 2018 as a tri-pod. Even though he couldn’t manage the stairs anymore, a special workspace was set up for him on the main level of the school.
If a child asked, Mary Lou would say that Clarence had the same kind of cancer as Terry Fox, the young athlete and hero who courageously attempted to run across Canada and who passed away in 1981. The children better understood that way. With the Paralympic Games fast approaching, Clarence’s own disability helped students to better understand the games too. The kids once again eagerly awaited his visits, even though their once regular walks with Clarence happened less frequently now because of the slippery school floors.
Clarence continued to visit his kids until June 2018. The therapy dog died of cancer on August 17, 2018. “We made some good friends and met some wonderful people,” Mary Lou says. Children at the school met a good friend too. For many, Clarence will be fondly remembered.
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.