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.

Reading goes to the Dogs!

By | In the community

by Judy Beltzner

For those of us who learned to read with Dick, Jane and their adorable dog, Spot, reading and dogs have always had a positive association. But back then, the idea of encouraging children to read with dogs to improve their reading skills was not yet on anyone’s radar. That changed for children in the National Capital Region in 2004 with the introduction of the Reading Education Assistance Dogs® (R.E.A.D.®) program under the umbrella of Ottawa Therapy Dogs.

Chantel Hutter and her Spaniel/Sheltie mix, Chelsea, were already a team with Ottawa Therapy Dogs when she came across Intermountain Therapy Animals and R.E.A.D. in the news. Chantel instantly knew that this was what she and Chelsea were meant to do, and after obtaining permission from the Western Quebec School Board for a pilot program, they soon became the first Canadian R.E.A.D. team. Chantel later qualified as a R.E.A.D. instructor through Intermountain Therapy Dogs in Utah and was instrumental in developing Ottawa Therapy Dogs’ R.E.A.D. program which currently has over 15 volunteer R.E.A.D. teams in local schools and libraries.

Sylvie Martel, who was a R.E.A.D. team with her previous Golden Retriever, Moxie, coordinates Ottawa Therapy Dogs’ library programs and often helps run the evaluations where therapy dogs and their handlers are tested for the
R.E.A.D. program to see if they qualify to work with children – an extra level of testing in the career of a therapy dog team. These therapy dogs in particular need a special kind of calm, relaxed temperament so they are comfortable in a busy school environment which can often be noisy and chaotic. And even though many therapy dogs enjoy visiting room-to-room in hospitals, not all of them like to sit or lie still for long periods of times like Reading Education Assistance Dogs, who truly enjoy their time curling up with children and books and being read to with lots of hugs and petting. 

Tara (Rosemary Chisholm) settles in for a story and some cuddle time with a young reader at the Centennial branch (OPL).
Photo credit: Brittany Veinot, www.PhoDOGapher.ca.

Rosemary Chisholm and her Golden Retriever, Tara, are familiar faces at the Centennial branch of the Ottawa Public Library as well as the Chelsea Library. Tara is always a huge hit with the children and it isn’t unusual for her to dress up for the occasion. In fact, her ‘regular readers’ will often arrived dressed up to read to her, too – like the princesses or heroes in the stories they enjoy. Andrea Gowing in Children’s Programs at Centennial is a very enthusiastic supporter of the R.E.A.D. program – perhaps because she herself struggled with reading as a child and has seen firsthand what therapy dogs can do. Dogs, she says, “lower blood pressure and are a calming influence … they don’t care about mistakes!” Their gentle, non-judgmental interaction with the children who read to them is what makes R.E.A.D. such a powerful program.

Handlers in OTD’s R.E.A.D. program are committed to improving literacy skills (in fact, several handlers have been teachers themselves) and are able to engage and communicate with the children at their level. The emphasis is on nurturing a connection between the child and the dog without the stress and pressure of being put on the spot. Any reading guidance from the handlers is given in the context of reading with the dog, such as “Tara doesn’t understand the word
‘tomorrow’ so let’s sound it out for her.”

Roxy (Alix Ranger) from Ottawa Therapy Dogs is a special reading companion for children at the Ruth E. Dickinson branch (OPL).

The program has also helped some children overcome their fear of dogs. Alix Ranger and her Boxer/Rottweiler mix, aptly named Roxy, is another of OTD’s ‘library dogs’ who visit the Ruth E. Dickinson library once a month for a weekend R.E.A.D. program. Alix has special memories of a young boy who was clearly afraid of Roxy at first and sat as far away as he could with his book. Over time, however, he started to come closer and closer, although he still approached Roxy from the tail end instead of where her teeth were! When he finally got up the courage to pet her, he was delighted by how soft she was, how gentle, how sweet – and not only was his fear gone, he didn’t want to leave her!

Parents appreciate the opportunity for their children to read in a warm, welcoming and supportive environment as part of this unique literacy initiative by Ottawa Therapy Dogs. Elizabeth Fosbery, in Children’s Programs at the Ruth E. Dickinson branch, echoes her colleague, Andrea Gowing’s experience with the R.E.A.D. program at Centennial and both librarians also that note the benefits of the program aren’t limited to simply reading — Andrea says that even older children have practised school presentations to the dogs (who wag their tails in approval!). 

Studies by UC Davis, a world leader in cross-disciplinary research at the University of California, found that children who read to a dog for 10 weeks — as students in Ottawa Therapy Dogs’ R.E.A.D. programs in schools do — improved their reading skills by 12 percent (in the first study) and 30 percent (in the second). And that’s not all: “…75 percent of parents reported that their children read aloud more frequently and with greater confidence after the study was completed.”1

The clear conclusion is that while fear of failure — and the embarrassment that may come with it — is human, dogs as reading companions help by just being themselves. They don’t judge, they don’t laugh and they don’t apply any pressure
– and children benefit enormously by reading to a friend who happens to be
overflowing with unconditional love – and covered in fur.

 1 https://www.ucdavis.edu/news/reading-rover-does-it-really-help-children-veterinary-school-says-‘yes’/

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.

Echinococcus tapeworm emerging in Ontario – how to protect your dog and yourselves

By | Parasite, Pet Health

Since 2012, we have been receiving reports of dogs developing a serious disease caused by the tapeworm, Echinococcus multilocularis (E. mulit for short).  While tapeworms are not unusual in dogs and cats, most are more of a nuisance than a serious health concern.  E. multi is a new game in town.

microscope image of E. multi tapeworm

Microscope image of E. multi tapeworm

This tiny parasite (3 mm long as an adult) infects wild canids, particularly coyotes and foxes.  Microscopic tapeworm eggs are ingested by an intermediate host, typically small rodents, and dogs and cats become infected when they ingest these rodents.  In this situation, the dog or cat will develop the intestinal adult parasite in their gut and begin shedding tapeworm eggs also.

adult coyote standing in the snowUnlike common tapeworms, however, dogs and people can become accidental intermediate hosts for the disease by accidently ingesting the tapeworm eggs directly from contaminated from coyote or fox feces.  In this situation, the tapeworm can form cysts in the liver or lungs of the dog or person, a condition known as Alveolar Echinococcus, and this is what we have been seeing since 2012.  A dog may present with expanding and large cysts within its liver or lungs, gradually destroying the normal tissues.  In people, this condition can take 5 to 15 years, making diagnosis difficult.

A recent study of Ontario coyote populations demonstrated 23% of fecal samples were infected with the tapeworm, raising concerns for pet and human health.  Please read the article from Dr. Scott Weese of the University of Guelph for more information: https://www.wormsandgermsblog.com/2019/01/articles/animals/dogs/echinococcus-multilocularis-ontario-canada/ or at https://www.emultiontario.com/.

Prevention of Echinococcus can only be directed at the intestinal form of the disease by treating dogs regularly with Praziquantal, a safe and effective dewormer.  Dogs that may be at risk are those that may ingest rodents or wildlife poop.  Unfortunately, the Alveloar form of the disease that develops from eating coyote feces is more difficult to prevent.

boxes of Interceptor PlusWe now carry Interceptor Plus for prevention of tapeworms in dogs.  As you may be aware, monthly Interceptor pills are used for Heartworm, roundworm, hookworm and whipworm prevention during the summer and fall.  Interceptor Plus contains Praziquantal also and can be used to prevent Echinococcus infection.  Used for this purpose, it can be given monthly during anytime of the year that the dogs are considered at risk (may eat rodents or coyote/fox poop).

Please take the time to read the attached information on E. multi and speak to our staff if you have further questions or would like to use Interceptor Plus for your dog.

 

Dr. Nigel Gumley

Cedarview Animal Hospital

A Special Dog Helping Autistic Children Take Small Steps Towards Success

By | In the community

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.