Sugar Face

By In the community

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.

Smiling elderly woman holding a bouqet of flowers and her elderly golden retriever sitting beside herFor 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.

golden retriever cuddling with her stuffed toy monkeySeveral 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.

The Language of Love…and Loki

By In the community

By Karen Luker

a therapy dog and his owner posing for a smiling portraitFor the past 6 years, Mireille Pitre has entered the doors of Le Transit school on Wednesdays during her lunch hour.  Le Transit is a specialized francophone school which provides both teaching and clinical intervention to children who have special learning and/or behavioural needs.  Programs are developed and delivered in partnership with many health and social service agencies in the National Capital Region.  Most of the students attend for a few years and then reintegrate into their neighbourhood school.

therapy dog providing comfort to a child learning to readWhat makes Mireille’s presence unique is that she is accompanied by her fluffy, blue-eyed companion, Loki.  Pitre recounts falling into her role as a volunteer when she overheard a family member talking about Ottawa Therapy Dogs.  Pitre recognized Loki’s calm demeanour from the time he was a puppy, and enjoyed his presence as she devoured countless books in her spare time.  The Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.) program, in her opinion, would be the perfect marriage of two of her greatest loves.

And so it came to be that Loki was introduced to the children of Le Transit.  Although Mireille had not been around children much prior, she learned that she could connect with them almost effortlessly through Loki.  “I learn about how the children learn simply by watching them interact with the dog.  Loki helps me figure out what motivates them”, states Pitre.

Loki is always up for the challenge.  He selects a book from an array by placing his paw on one when he hears “choisis” (choose).  At times, Loki decides he’d rather roll onto the book collection.  Laughter ensues, and the kids are hooked.

Pitre works closely with Johanne Beauregard, a teacher at the school.  Beauregard is part of a multi-disciplinary team who constantly seeks methods through which to engage and encourage the students.  “It’s a brilliant idea”, says Beauregard.  “The program goes way beyond simply helping the kids with their reading.  They come out of their shell; they feel more confident.  The students also feel safe, relaxed and at peace during the time they spend with Loki”.

Both Pitre and Beauregard also describe the impact that Loki has had on students who are fearful of dogs in general.  Despite their apprehension, many children ask to attend a R.E.A.D. session because it’s one of the most popular activities offered by the school.  Loki and his handler have obliged by providing gradual exposure to the dog in a controlled, predictable environment.  Success stories abound.

Loki, despite not being able to understand (or read!) much French, interacts with the students on a whole different level.  In his case, one might say it’s all about the language of love.

Beauregard recalls a student who was severely withdrawn both in and out of the classroom.  In Loki’s presence, the child attended each reading session with enthusiasm and a smile.  Reading became fun and the student blossomed.

Pitre shares her astonishment with the progress the children make as well.  “To see a child who can’t read at all, who isn’t motivated to read, tell me he read a book to his dog on the weekend, that’s priceless”, says Pitre.

Pitre’s own love for the program has inspired her to ensure Loki’s legacy lives on.  She is now raising Atlas, who is meant to take over when Loki retires.  In the meantime, Loki has another job – ensuring Atlas learns as much as he can from him in preparation for his own turn as a therapy dog.  If Pitre and Beauregard have anything to do with it, the school’s students can look forward to many years of support and success.

 

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 rise of heart disease in dogs: is there a pet food link?

By News, Pet Health

By Dr. Nigel Gumley

The Food and Drug Administration in the US recently published the third report looking into a possible link between pet food and heart disease in dogs (see https://www.fda.gov/animal-veterinary/news-events/fda-investigation-potential-link-between-certain-diets-and-canine-dilated-cardiomyopathy ).  The history behind this investigation started with a concern with dogs being diagnosed with Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) in breeds not usually associated with this condition.

DCM occurs when the heart muscle weakens over time and is unable to pump blood effectively around the body.  It is a well-known genetic condition in breeds such as Newfoundland dogs, Great Danes and other giant breeds, but also in Dobermans and King Charles Cavalier Spaniels.  Affected dogs can present with an acquired heart murmur or abnormal heart rhythm heard on a routine veterinary exam, or may present clinically with exercise intolerance, coughing and heavy breathing, or even fainting and collapse.  In extreme cases, dogs can die suddenly.

Since 1 January 2014 until 30 April 2019, the FDA has received reports of 515 dogs and 9 cats with DCM, but 222 of these have been reported since 1 December 2018, suggesting that more dogs are becoming affected.  Many of these dogs are of breeds where DCM is not an expected genetic disease.

An association has been suggested between certain pet foods and dogs developing DCM, with the finding that over 90% of these are “grain-free” and over 93% contained peas and/or lentils.  Common brands include Acana, Taste of the Wild, Blue Buffalo, Fromm, Merrick, Natural Balance, Orijen and Nutro, among others.  The FDA and affiliate laboratories have failed, to date, to find any difference in these diets and other foods with respect to protein, fat, moisture, fibre, starch, and some amino acids previously associated with heart disease such as cystine, methionine and taurine.  Taurine has specifically been suggested since there has been a rise in Golden Retrievers diagnosed with DCM and finding that the dogs are taurine-deficient.  While the diets are normal in taurine content, possible factors might be resulting in poor taurine absorption or metabolism.

As of this time, the FDA is conducting more tests and working with owners of affected dogs to investigate for other possible links, such as plant poisonings and exposure to heavy metals.   Specialists are collecting blood and urine samples and conducting serial heart checks in affected dogs to look for other evidence of causes.  Pet food companies are also working with the FDA to examine how pet food may play a role.

At Cedarview Animal Hospital, we have found two pets this year with suspiciously poor heart contractility and both were being fed grain-free diets.  Both dogs were otherwise apparently healthy but has suspicious findings on their exams and routine tests and showed reduced heart function on heart tests.  While we can suspect heart disease from clinical signs such as new heart murmurs, coughing, breathing problems, or exercise intolerance, more specific heart tests such as a cardiac ultrasound or echocardiogram are needed to find evidence that DCM is a concern.

We will continue to watch for more information coming out of the FDAs investigation into this syndrome and potential links to pet food.  It is unlikely that most dogs fed grain-free foods will develop problems, but anyone concerned with the condition may want to avoid this category of food or any of those listed by the FDA.  For clients concerned with whether their pet may be affected clinically with heart disease, please call us for an examination of the pet and discussion about how to investigate further if needed.

Therapy Dogs Working with Teens in Mental Health Settings

By In the community

The role of dogs as mental health practitioners has long been known, at least to readers of the Peanuts comic strip:

Peanuts Comic Strip

 

Now, research conducted at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario proves that they really do help.   Valerie Gendron, an Occupational Therapist in CHEO’s In-Patient Psychiatry Program, participated in a research project to assess the impact of unstructured animal visitation on youth who were hospitalized with mental health difficulties.  1, 2

The study, based on 41 adolescents with a mean age of 15 years, concluded that the patients saw the visiting therapy dogs as supportive, felt connected to the dogs, enjoyed the visits, felt calm and soothed, and became more mindful and less stressed.  They also indicated that they would continue to use connections with animals – either with their own pets or perhaps just recollecting the therapy dog visits – to help calm and comfort them after their discharge.

Two of Ottawa Therapy Dogs’ teams visit the In-Patient Psychiatry Program on alternate Fridays.  Jill Sullivan accompanies her dog Jasmine, an 11-year-old boxer who survived cancer after surgery to remove part of her mouth.  Jasmine thinks she is uniquely beautiful, and the kids at CHEO definitely agree!   Sylvie Lambert visits with Luther, a loveable Golden Retriever who sometimes dresses up as a lion!

Valerie, Jill and Sylvie all describe the dogs’ visits in the same glowing terms.  Something about the dogs’ presence, they say, calms the kids down, makes them more approachable, breaks through the reservations and trepidation they might have about being in the hospital. The dogs serve as role models for calmness and mindfulness: they live in the moment and are intensely present.  Young patients can talk to the dogs more freely than to people, and new pathways are thus be opened up for therapists to follow.  During the pet visits, “you see a side of these kids that you don’t see any other time.” 

Attesting to the bond the patients form with Jasmine and Luther, some patients have asked to delay their discharge until after the dog’s next visit.  One patient who had been admitted with severe behavioural issues returned to CHEO’s Teddy Bear Picnic after his release from hospital, just to see Jasmine.   Patients who are very stressed may want to brush Luther for a while: the linear, repetitive motion calms them down, and Luther certainly doesn’t object!Golden Retriever wearing a lion costume

Ottawa Therapy Dogs also plays an important role at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. Dr. Judy Makinen is a Clinical Psychologist with their Youth Psychiatry Program and has incorporated animal-assisted therapy into her group sessions with youth for many years – first with Dakota, and now with Fraser, a 6-year-old Golden Retriever.  When Fraser joins Dr. Makinen’s group sessions, he brings a sense of calm and an openness for the youth to share their mental health struggles and experiences.

Last summer, Fraser was quite ill and he lost half of one ear. Dr. Makinen thought she would need to retire him because of his appearance. However, she brought him in to group session anyway, which lead to a wonderful therapeutic discussion about body image issues, fear of judgement, and acceptance. Their comment was, “everyone should be like Fraser, he doesn’t care what other people or dogs think of his appearance.”  Interestingly, Fraser tends to be drawn to the most guarded and socially awkward youth (the underdogs, so to speak). 

Fraser also attends some individual therapy sessions, particularly with youth who have difficulty trusting people and are generally ambivalent about engaging in therapy. He facilitates safety and trust. If the youth can attach to a dog, then they tend to open up to the owner. Fraser has been very effective at assisting in alliance building and therapeutic interventions, such as exposures (e.g., fear of riding elevators). Fraser accompanies the youth during the in vivo exposures, thus making it easier for them and more fun.

Jeanne Gallagher and her big, black Goldendoodle named Buddy have also been regular visitors to the ROH Youth Psychiatry Program for 4 years.

Jeanne describes how much the patients look forward to Buddy’s visits.  Many of them miss their own dogs, especially the youngsters who have come to Ottawa from Nunavut and are far away from home.  They say that when Buddy is there, he brings a feeling of normalcy – of home – to the hospital environment.  There is no language barrier for them when they talk to Buddy in Inuktitut!

Jeanne also tells the powerful story of a young boy who had never been exposed to dogs before his hospitalization.  He had a “meltdown” when he heard that Buddy would be visiting and at first refused to enter the room.  After a while, he would wait at the door, and eventually made his way inside.  Finally, after several weeks, he became so attached to Buddy that he spent the whole 45-minute visit with Buddy’s head on his lap.  When he was discharged, he bought his new friend a dog toy as a farewell gift!

In sum, there is no doubt that therapy dog visits ease the anxiety levels of the young patients in mental health programs.  And as an added bonus, they also make work more enjoyable for the dedicated staff who work in those programs, contributing to their mental wellness too.  From all perspectives, it’s a good thing when the “dogtor” is in!

Author’s note:  Shortly after this article was written, Jasmine passed away and Buddy took a well-deserved retirement.  The article has been kept in its original form as a tribute to these two amazing therapy dogs & their handlers.

[1] Inpatient Psychiatry “Pet Therapy” Evaluation Study: Patient Experiences and Satisfaction with the Inpatient Psychiatry “Pet Therapy Program”.  Marysia J. Lazinski, Psychology Resident, Stephanie L. Greenham, Supervising Psychologist, Valerie Gendron, Occupational Therapist.  July 2017.
[2] Research Poster – OTD in CHEO’s Inpatient Psychiatry Unit

Books, Baths & Beyond

By In the community

by Karen Luker

“It’s time for school!”  When Lily hears her mother say these words, she begrudgingly heads down the stairs to the laundry tub.  Her sister Daisy recognizes the routine, and positions herself in front of the door in the hopes that she might get to go as well.  But sixteen-year-old Daisy can only watch with envy as her sister, 13-year-old Lily, goes through her regular grooming routine in preparation for her favourite day of the week.  Although she doesn’t like her bath, Lily does enjoy the one-on-one attention provided by her mom, Mary Jane, and the excitement of attending local schools and libraries in her role as an Ottawa Therapy Dog.

Mary Jane Maffini is a former librarian turned mystery novelist.  When she isn’t accepting awards or attending conferences, Mary Jane is mom to her two loving dachshunds, Lily and Daisy.  She is also the leader of a one-woman-one-canine team of visitors to local schools and libraries, where she helps children develop their reading and other skills.

dachsund therapy dog reading with young girl

• Kaiya is all smiles after having finished her reading session with Lily at Berrigan Public School.

Mary Jane has been a volunteer with Ottawa Therapy Dogs for more than 10 years.  While Daisy is now retired, Lily continues to be a regular visitor in the Ottawa area.  For four years, she attended Berrigan Public School, where she helped up to four children with their reading every week.

Mary Jane refers to herself as “an invisible handler”.  By this, she means that students focus on her dogs, forgetting there is a human at the end of the leash who provides the support.  Kids are so excited to be chosen to participate in the program that they burst with excitement whenever they are asked to leave the classroom for their “remedial” session.

There are other ways that Berrigan students have learned from Daisy and Lily which extend beyond reading.  Some children who have been raised to fear dogs have gradually developed an appreciation for the human-animal bond.  Their parents have as well.  For example, some children were able to sit with Mary Jane and her companion, but not touch the dog.  Gradually, families have come to recognize and accept that touching a dog can be a safe and beneficial experience.

Mary Jane emphasizes the importance of encouraging children to develop a joy of reading.  Sometimes, it’s not about the mechanics of decoding a word or answering a question about a story correctly; it can be the simple act of laughing together about something silly a character has done, or sharing thoughts about a great illustration (think of Snoopy crying!)  As Mary Jane puts it, “The joy of books hasn’t come to those children yet, and Lily helps.  Many kids who have trouble reading just don’t have that joy.  Because being with a dog is a pleasurable experience, Lily can help be the bridge.”

Mary Jane recalls an 8-year-old student who was new to Canada.  Although he could sound out any word, he did not have the knowledge of English he needed to understand most of what he was reading.  Mary Jane set up a familiar scenario whereby Lily didn’t understand either, and together, Mary Jane and the student figured out the vocabulary and the sentence structure required for “Lily” to learn.  Mary Jane sums it up best, stating, “The students all get what I’m trying to do through the dog, but they just play along.  Teaching the dog gives them a purpose and takes the spotlight off them needing the help.  They can relax, and they are thrilled when I tell them Lily thinks they are helping her.”

two dachsund therapy dogs wearing scarves

Daisy and Lily don their scarves for their visits.

Being a dachshund, Lily isn’t shy about expressing her likes and dislikes.  She has favourite stories, including Ten Little Hot Dogs.  The book contains predictable, repetitive vocabulary – a safe endeavour for many struggling readers.  Thanks to his practice with Lily and Mary Jane, one grade one student increased his confidence in reading aloud, earning himself a personal copy of the book.  When Mary Jane subsequently asked him if he had read the book to his mother, the boy grinned and proudly told her that he had read it to his entire class.

These are the experiences that make Ottawa Therapy Dog volunteers return to their assignments over and over again.  Dogs such as Lily and Daisy are simply “props”, a foot in the door, a key to unlocking a treasure of enjoyment and learning.

And it isn’t just the students who benefit from their time with the dogs.  School teachers, staff and the principal always make a point of coming out to talk to Lily.  “That’s okay,” says Mary Jane, “I have my own friends.”

Author’s note:  Shortly after this article was written, Daisy passed away and Lily took a well-deserved retirement.  The article has been kept in its original form as a tribute to these hard-working gals.

 

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.