Ottawa Therapy Dogs – Easing Children’s Pain with a Professional Snuggler

By | In the community

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.

Cuddles help Sarah focus on something other than her pain. Photo credit: Eric Poirier

“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.

Jake provides Chantel Hutter with a break from her own chronic pain.

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.

Therapy Dogs in Children’s Hospitals – The Best Medicine!

By | In the community

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.”

Gentle and calm Labrador Retriever leans against his owner's leg while being pet

Isaac’s quiet, gentle temperament played an important role in qualifying as a team for Ottawa Therapy Dogs with handler, Julie Jolicoeur.

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!

Head shot of Ottawa Therapy Dog Isaac with his CHEO ID tag

Isaac looks official in his Ottawa Therapy Dogs’ uniform and CHEO ID tag. Photo credit: Lucia Figueredo, CHEO Foundation

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. 

Therapy dog visits with a pediatric cancer patient who is very happy to see him

The joy on a young patient’s face is unmistakable as she gently interacts with the author’s dog, Tigger, during a visit to CHEO. Photo credit: Rhonda Kimmerly, CHEO Foundation

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.

Ottawa Therapy Dogs – Dealing with Life’s Transitions, One Dog at a Time

By | In the community

by Karen Luker

Vincent Amari* carefully packs a few belongings into the one suitcase he is able to carry these days. His larger ones served him well when he travelled the Middle East as a journalist. As he looks out his bedroom window, the retired gentleman is keenly aware that this may be the last time he takes in the beauty of the garden he tended with care for so many years.

There has been little time to consider what to do with his cherished belongings and his beloved cat Freckles. Today, he must leave on a terrifying journey to the unknown. The transition to his new life will no doubt be filled with uncertainty, loneliness, and many hours with strangers who will try to convince him that he has left everything behind for the right reasons.

While Vincent’s story may conjure up images of a war-torn country and a refugee’s desperate search for a new beginning, he has lived what he would describe as a charmed life in Ottawa for the past 40 years. The truth is, Vincent was recently diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. His oncologist informed him he would not live long enough to become a grandfather in a few months.

Today, Vincent is being admitted to the Bruyère Continuing Care Palliative Care Unit to receive specialized assistance during his final days. He will receive physical, psychological, social, recreational and spiritual support from a team whose job it is to improve the quality of life of patients and their families who are facing a life-limiting illness. And for the past eighteen years, that team has included at least one volunteer team from Ottawa Therapy Dogs (OTD).

An elderly woman in palliative care blows kisses to a standard poodle therapy dog at her beside

Marjorie Bowie blows kisses to Bloo as he arrives for his visit.

 

Meet Brenda Dikland and Bloo. Bloo is an 8-year-old standard poodle who is new to the job. He loves people and being in the spotlight. His stature makes him a perfect bedside companion. His wooly grey afro is the ideal ice-breaker. Brenda first joined OTD in the hopes of helping children to read. But Bloo, like many therapy dogs, is completing a year with adults before making the transition to working with children. Taking this unexpected detour, Brenda explains, has been life-changing. “It’s opened a door that I didn’t know was there”, she shares. “It’s a privilege. It’s humbling and centring. In the same way I’ve chosen to live in the forest for the silence, this work is quieting me.”

Zirci relishes the attention during his visit.

Yolande Trottier and Zirci, who retired just before Bloo’s arrival, would agree. A cancer survivor herself, Yolande accepted the assignment with some trepidation, afraid the unit would be filled with sadness. What she found was quite the opposite – smiles are plentiful when a happy-go-lucky dog enters the room. And the dog acts as the bridge that allows Yolande, as a virtual stranger, to come into contact and share intimate moments with patients and their families. “My impression changed instantly. It’s so gratifying to see what the dog can bring”, says Yolande, who also describes how much her visits have helped her with her own understanding of death as part of the life cycle. “I did this with the intention of sharing my dog, but it had such an impact on me that I didn’t expect and didn’t look for. I am so thankful that I had this opportunity to share my dog with so many wonderful people and to make a difference in their lives”.

Zirci doing what he does best at Bruyère Continuing Care.

Yolande describes a particularly impactful experience. Her mother-in-law, who had always relegated Zirci to the floor of her home despite his many attempts to jump onto her sofa, was admitted to the unit for end-of-life care. Yolande took the opportunity to visit with Zirci, where she observed a welcome transformation. Her mother-in-law welcomed Zirci onto her bed, treating him with kindness as she pet him until they both drifted off to sleep.

OTD volunteers who have visited the unit over the years have countless stories of their own to tell. Patients reminisce about their own pets. Visitors drop their smart phones to welcome a visiting therapy dog, thus opening a conversation with their loved one. For the volunteer, death is no longer frightening, misunderstood, or taboo. It is an integral part of life, to which dogs and their humans both willingly give and gratefully receive. When Vincent Amari arrives on the palliative care unit, Brenda Dikland and Bloo will be there to welcome him. Hopefully, together, they will make this last life transition a little less terrifying for him.

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 8 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.

*the patient’s name has been altered to maintain privacy.

Therapy Dogs Go to University

By | In the community

by Judy Beltzner

Late nights. Too much coffee. Cramming. Away from home for the first time. So much pressure! Anyone who has gone to university recognizes the causes and symptoms of students’ anxiety. Now there is a new way to help students get through trying times during the academic year when their tension builds. How to do it? With therapy dogs!

Ottawa’s two universities recognize the benefits of interaction with therapy dogs and are offering it to their students in slightly different ways. At the University of Ottawa, Student Academic Success Services and Health Promotion Services collaborate to offer a weekly, hour-long program for students who are feeling anxious or living through stressful situations. Students can spend time with one or more of several therapy dogs, including a beautiful golden retriever named Luther from Ottawa Therapy Dogs.

Luther’s handler is Sylvie Lambert. Though her job is teaching translation at uOttawa, her mission in life is doing therapy work with her dogs. Sylvie was part of the initial pilot program there with Luther’s predecessor, Rusty Bear. Now, she brings Luther every second Friday and takes a visceral pleasure in how much the students cherish their time with him. “When I leave,” she says, “I’m high as a kite.” The students’ interactions with Luther are 100% genuine and sincere, from the heart, with no artifice and without the protective barriers that humans sometimes put up between themselves.

The uOttawa therapy dog program began in 2012 and is currently coordinated by Sylvie Fournel-Marko. The program is hugely popular, with students lined up out the door to wait for their opportunity to visit with the dogs. Peak times are around mid-terms and exams, but the program is always well attended with an average of 80 – 100 students visiting with three dogs during the one-hour session.  University staff sometimes join in as well. Ms. Fournel-Marko says that students typically leave with comments like “this made my day” and “this really helped me.” Homesick students, especially from overseas or those missing their own dogs, are particularly appreciative of the warm welcome they get from the therapy dogs.

A study of the pilot program concluded that it offered students “a sense of love and support … a means to reduce stress from their studies.” Students’ ratings showed that they were glad they came (4.95 on a 5-point scale), felt more calm and relaxed (4.29/5) and would recommend the program to others (4.96/5).  These findings are borne out by several U.S. studies using both physiological measures and responses to questionnaires, which concluded that time spent with therapy dogs buffers the stress response in university students, regardless of previous pet ownership or their attitudes to dogs.

Carleton University offers students the opportunity to interact with therapy dogs through its Procrastination Busters program, which provides a quiet study space to help students “get things done.” Participants attend the program twice a week during academic terms, and dogs are there as additional motivators. One of these dogs is Dozer from Ottawa Therapy Dogs, along with his handler, Elise Laviolette.

Dozer is a mellow, Zen-like English bulldog who is a real draw for the 15 or so students in the group. Spending time with him is a reward they give themselves when they accomplish a goal. Because it is quite unusual to have an English bulldog as a therapy dog, the students love to take selfies with Dozer and post them on Instagram! They tell Elise that he calms them down and makes them happy to come to the group. Elise takes pleasure in being back in the university environment after 20 years, spending time with students and helping them achieve their goals. She has also noticed a change in Dozer since he started his university ‘gig’ — he has become more attuned to people and now seeks contact with them in all kinds of environments. It’s like “he knows his job is to be admired and petted,” she says, “and he loves it!”

As PsychologyToday.com concluded in a March 2018 post[1] by Stanley Coren, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia, even a single contact with a therapy dog in a group setting is effective at reducing students’ stress, and the measurable positive effects last for hours afterwards. 

University students in Ottawa are very fortunate to have the chance to reduce their stress by visiting with Luther, Dozer and other wonderful therapy dogs. 

[1] https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/canine-corner/201803/petting-away-pre-exam-stress-therapy-dogs-campus

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, a beautiful black lab – golden retriever cross. 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.

A Therapy Dog Team Honours a Life Well-Lived

By | In the community

By Julianne Labreche

When Lucille Crépeau, a woman in her nineties, passed away earlier this year, her only son Michel reached out in his grief to a team from Ottawa Therapy Dogs. He invited Lise Dazé and Bella, her Rottweiler and Bernese Mountain Dog mix, to participate in the funeral held to celebrate his mother’s life.

“I was back in Ottawa during this difficult period and saw Lise and Bella multiple times,” Michel, who lives in British Columbia, remembers. therapy dog at funeralHis mother had a stroke and as her health gradually deteriorated, she was moved to palliative care. “Pets were significant companions to my mom,” he recalls.

Lise, who loves to sing, sang composer Franz Schubert’s beautiful song Ave Maria at the funeral. She was comfortable singing that day before the mainly French-speaking community of invited family and friends, having sung in churches since she was a young girl. Nowadays, she also uses singing as a way to connect with residents at Centre d’accueil Champlain, a long-term care residence in Vanier where Madame Crépeau resided prior to her death. Bella – groomed and looking her best with her Ottawa Therapy Dogs scarf – sat in honour near the cremation urn during the service.

“You meet lots of people, but you really get close to some of the residents,” says Lise, describing her volunteer work with Bella at Centre d’accueil Champlain over the years. Her passion and enthusiasm for her volunteer work are obvious. She is the kind of volunteer who goes above-and-beyond the call of duty to cheer up the residents, many of whom are elderly and have dementia or other cognitive and physical impairments. Every Saturday, she and Bella visit the residence. Sometimes, she makes extra visits, especially when a resident is approaching death. Residents pat Bella, chat with Lise about family pets or other topics, or hold hands and sing.

Lise’s relationship to Madame Crépeau was one of those close relationships. Bella helped to forge a strong bond between the two women who were alike in many ways, despite the difference in their respective ages. Lise remembers her as a stubborn, determined woman. “If I was late, she’d ask, where were you? I was waiting for you,” she laughs. She also remembers her frail friend, a former hospital employee, as a strong advocate for others. She often spoke up for other residents and had high expectations about the level of care provided by staff. Lise liked her feisty, strong personality and easily connected with her.

therapy dog comforting elderly womanThe two women also shared a love of dogs, deepening the relationship even further. Madame Crépeau lived part of her life in Ottawa where she had always had little dogs to keep her company. Even though Bella is a big dog, she appreciated the dog’s calm, gentle temperament and delighted that Bella was clean and always smelled good. Visits usually began with a pat for Bella and then the big dog would lie down at her feet while the two women chatted away. 

One day near the final weeks of Madame Crépeau’s life, Lise got a call from staff at the residence that her friend was ill. She began to visit more often. During the Christmas break, Lise visited her every day. She visited on Christmas Eve, on Christmas day, on New Year’s Eve and until she passed away on January 1, 2018. On that day, Lise remembers walking with Bella in the park and experiencing a sudden feeling that she needed to visit the residence. She drove there with Bella just in time to spend some special time with Madame Crépeau. Lise was with her friend when she passed away. “I stayed with her, prayed with her and then went and got the nurse. It was very quiet and peaceful, “she remembers.

Andrea Chartrand, Activities Coordinator at the City of Ottawa facility, describes the work of this therapy dog team as ‘friendship visits’. They help to break the isolation that many residents feel in an institutional setting and the effects of having experienced different losses in the past, including the loss of their pets. “She has developed some beautiful relationships. We’re very lucky to have her,” Andrea says.

She explains that prior to being assigned to a therapy dog team, residents are evaluated to determine who likes dogs, who had family pets and who is allergic to animals. Then it’s determined who would be appropriate for a therapy dog visit.

Lise admits that it’s difficult to say goodbye when a resident passes. She continues to be comforted by her faith and by knowing that these elderly residents have enjoyed these therapy dog visits.

 

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.