By Julianne Labreche, OTD Associate Member
Everyone needs a wise mentor when young, someone to smooth those rough edges and teach kindness by living it.
Copain, the big black standard poodle that works every Monday morning as a therapy dog with ALS patients at The Ottawa Hospital Rehabilitation Centre (TOHRC) had a mentor too. His name was Dylan, a big, friendly white standard poodle that lived with Michel Bourassa, his handler.
As a young dog, just six months old, Copain had lots to learn when he moved into his forever home with Dylan and Michel.
By then, Dylan was an experienced therapy dog. Michel and Dylan had been working in the ALS Clinic as volunteers for over three years, greeting outpatients and their families. Patients diagnosed with ALS are seen at TOHRC for medical interventions and rehabilitation therapies provided by an experienced ALS team.
Even though ALS has no known cure, there is a great deal that can be done to improve a patient’s quality of life as the disease progresses. For that reason, these patients continue to make the trek regularly to meet with doctors, nurses and rehabilitation staff.
Nevertheless, these clinic visits often are difficult. Patients sometimes receive bad news, especially given the progressive nature of their disabilities. A friendly visit from a therapy dog team can go a long way to reduce the stress and anxiety that can accompany appointments.
Right from the beginning, Michel hoped that Copain would be a therapy dog too, just like his older dog.
“The two dogs hit it off famously,” says Michel, retired and a volunteer with Ottawa Therapy Dogs (OTD) and The Ottawa Hospital. He remembers too that the energetic pup needed to learn a few good manners. Of course, there was the usual roughhousing in the backyard between the two dogs, but there were also carefully planned walks around the hospital grounds. Always leashed and with his young protégée in tow, Michel encouraged Dylan to be a good mentor.
Following Dylan’s example, Copain was taught how to be on his best behavior around the hospital, never pulling on his leash or jumping, always being friendly and gentle when strangers approached. Fortunately, the young dog learned quickly.
Then one winter’s day, bad news arrived. It came about the time that Copain, almost two, was about to be tested in an OTD therapy dog evaluation. Dylan was diagnosed with an inoperable tumor. Soon after, the dog died– a sad day for Michel and Dale, his wife.
Just one week later and still grieving, Michel picked up the leash and attached it to Copain. The time had come for new beginnings. Together, on one cold Monday morning in February 2017, this new therapy dog team walked across the icy park to the hospital. The little pup had grown into a big, gentle therapy dog, thanks, in part, to his best friend Dylan.
Since then, Michel and Copain have provided regular weekly therapy dog visits in the ALS Clinic. They’re still volunteering there. While Dylan will always be missed, it turns out Copain has a style of his own that seems to work its magic on many patients. Not all people like dogs, but most do. Michel – a shy, quiet, big-hearted man – respects that fact and never imposes his dog on hospital visitors or staff.
“The ALS clinic meets with patients and their significant others at a very emotional and vulnerable period in their lives,” says the ALS team’s registered nurse Susan McNeely. “Copain has the sweetest way of gently leaning his body into the person, providing them with his version of a hug.”
Staff sometimes benefit from the visits too, given the stressful nature of this emotionally charged work.
“Having a therapy dog team during the ALS Clinic has really made a difference for both patients and staff,” says Margo Butler, a speech-language pathologist on the ALS team. “They are a much needed calming and soothing influence.”
Michel is proud to show off a photo of Dylan that hangs in a nearby hospital corridor. In the photo, Dylan is standing next to former Governor General David Johnston who visited the rehabilitation centre during his time in office. Dylan and Michel also won various awards, including a national award from the ALS Society for their volunteer work.
Copain receives his share of recognition too, including being thanked during Volunteer Week at the hospital and before Christmas, sometimes with a bag of dried liver or other treats.
After all, loosely translated, the French word ‘copain’ means ‘friend’.
These days, there’s no doubt that Copain has made many friends among the patients, family members and hospital staff who have come to rely on these regular therapy dog visits for kindness and affection in troubled times.
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 handler with her previous dog, Paugan, a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever.