by Julianne Labreche
According to one family member who stops by for a little visit with Tara, the aging Golden Retriever that visits with families each week at Manoir Ronald McDonald House in Ottawa, grey-whiskered dogs south of the border are sometimes called ‘sugar–faced dogs’. That’s just a sweet way of saying they’re getting on in years.
For Tara, the phrase rings true. She’s a gentle ten-year-old dog that everyone at this residence seems to love, especially today. It’s the last day for visits with this senior canine. After over eight years, Tara and her handler, Rosemary Chisholm, are saying goodbye.
The manoir is a home-away-from home for families with a child receiving medical treatment for a serious or life-threatening illness. Typically, these families travel long distances ––80 kilometres or further – or come by air ambulance to Ottawa where help awaits at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO).
There’s lots of stress and many tears whenever families are pulled away from their community under such tragic circumstances. The manoir becomes their temporary home, conveniently located just across the road from CHEO. At Ronald McDonald House, they can stay as long as they’d like while medical tests, counselling and interventions are carried out.
Moms and dads arrive regularly, bringing not only their sick child in tow but other siblings too. A family will stay in one of the upstairs’ units for as long as needed while staff and volunteers try their best to provide much-needed supports– practical tips, peer support with other families struggling with serious illness, home cooked meals if possible, hugs and yes, those weekly visits by a therapy dog team.
“Families here are away from their own pets,” says the home’s CEO Christine Hardy, explaining the stressful circumstances of most families’ urgent departure to receive medical care. “ Some have even had to give their pets away.” Then she adds: “It’s a much happier place when Tara comes for a visit.”
Hardy notes the power of any therapy animal to improve a person’s mental or physical wellbeing, according to evidence-based research. On a more practical note, she notes, there can be lots of down time for families at the Manoir, especially siblings who accompany a seriously ill brother or sister and parents to Ottawa. Loneliness and boredom can quickly set in. A therapy dog visit provides an anticipated distraction, bringing lots of smiles.
For a child with a cancer diagnosis or other illness, a friendly visit with a therapy dog can bring normalcy– a sharp contrast to needles and lab tests, fears and uncertainties.
“There only one rule,” Rosemary says jokingly, as Tara stretches out on the big braided carpet in the cozy living room for a visit. “Once you start patting, you can’t stop.” Tara just can’t seem to get enough cuddles, it seems.
Tara was as a rescue dog that Rosemary welcomed into her home years ago. She was seven months old at the time, adopted through a local Golden Retriever rescue group. It soon became clear that Tara was a very special dog with a docile temperament, even though there were a few hurdles to jump through before passing the Ottawa Therapy Dogs (OTD) evaluation.
One part of the test involves the dog walking past food at ground level, a tempting treat and big challenge for most dogs. Handlers must be able to rely on their dog to just leave it. Rosemary remembers that part of the evaluation as being the hardest for Tara. It took a lot of practice with multiple walks past peanut butter to prepare for the test.
Fortunately, Tara and Rosemary aced their therapy dog evaluation. Since then, this team of dog and handler have worked many places together– in schools where children learn to read aloud to the dog, in a few retirement homes providing friendly visits, in the community working with kids who have a fear of dogs, and even in the courtroom where, depending on the circumstances, a dog can help to put a witness at ease.
But it’s here, today, at Manoir Ronald McDonald House, where saying goodbye is so difficult. There are several farewells with families currently living there, including a mom from northern Ontario who talks about her beloved two dogs, now deceased. When she gets home, she’s hoping to get two dogs again– maybe a Corgi for her daughter and a Golden Retriever, like Tara, for herself.
Several staff members arrive unexpectedly, laden with gifts. There’s a big box of beautiful fall sunflowers for Rosemary. There’s a grey and red stuffed sock monkey for Tara – a big hit – and naturally, some dog biscuits. The toy monkey, everyone decides, will be called ‘Ronald’. It will be a good memory of some great work there.
Being a ‘sugar-faced dog’, it’s appropriate that Tara will be spending the coming winter with Rosemary and her husband in Florida. The dog is only partially retiring, so some therapy dog visits are planned.
It will be a good life for them down south, warm and sunny. Both are a little grey but still healthy and happy–a fine duo, this snowbird and snowdog.
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.