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 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. 


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.

A Therapy Dog with a Disability Inspires Hope

By In the community

By Julianne Labreche

Whenever Sandy, a Shetland Sheepdog from Ottawa Therapy Dogs, walks cheerfully down the hallways of The Ottawa Hospital Rehabilitation Centre (TOHRC) doing his rounds, patients and staff often pause for a visit. After some pats and cuddles with the spunky little therapy dog, they turn to Dona Bowers, his handler, with almost invariably the same question: “What happened to his leg?”

Dona has a ready reply, having answered the same question many times in the past. She is a familiar face during her weekly visits to TOHRC where she volunteers with Sandy. Together, the team spends time with patients who are working hard to regain their independence and achieve progress with their physical rehabilitation.

In the spring of 2014, about six months after she and Sandy were tested and passed Ottawa Therapy Dogs’ evaluation, her much-loved pet had a terrible accident. It could have been a lot worse, she recounts. Tragically, the little dog had a ‘run-in’ with a dump truck. Dona rushed him to the veterinarian who recommended amputating his rear leg.

Fortunately, after surgery and some at-home rehabilitation, Sandy made a fine recovery. Nowadays, at nine years of age, the Sheltie confidently continues to manage his day-to-day life as a tripawd dog with a disability. He walks amazingly well on three legs.

The disability could have marked a sad ending to Sandy’s still-to-be-launched therapy dog career. Instead, it turned into a hopeful new beginning. Soon after Sandy’s recovery, Dona heard about an opening for a therapy dog team at the rehabilitation centre. “I thought, what could be a more perfect spot than that? “ she says. “I asked OTD to go there.”

On the wards, Dona and Sandy visit with patients with varying physical disabilities, including those who have had limbs amputated and those who propel themselves with the use of manual or electric wheelchairs. There is lots of work ahead for these patients, booked for regular physiotherapy and occupational therapy sessions. It is also a journey for these men and women to regain hope as they learn to adapt to life with a disability. Sandy helps many of them on that journey.

It is a significant commitment of time and energy for Dona, a busy woman herself. The family physician is edging towards retirement while continuing to work off and on delivering babies. In her volunteer job, each therapy dog visit with Sandy involves grooming and brushing the little dog, preparing him to look his best for visits.

Many patients eagerly look forward to these regular visits. Elaina Billings is one of those patients. “I just love animals,” she says, meeting Sandy for the first time just a day after her arrival on the ward. She is desperately missing her two cats – an eight-year-old male named Eddie and a three-year-old female, Echo. While she remains in hospital, both pets are cared for at home by her mother.

Her own journey has not been easy. She was born with spina bifida, a birth defect caused when the bones of the spine don’t form properly. She was admitted to the hospital in late October and her difficult acute patient stay included time in intensive care with serious respiratory problems. After nearly five and a half months, she is excited about coming to rehabilitation. Eventually, after some hard work, she looks forward to returning home for good. She knows that her cats are waiting.

“I was excited when I heard that Sandy and Dona were going to be here,” she says. “There are lots of studies that say that animals calm you down. I’ve had cats all my life.”

Her love of animals also extends to horses. When she was a little girl, she worked to improve her balance and confidence by practicing therapeutic riding. She laughs when she remembers how she started on a small pony and, after five years of practice, she was riding the tallest horse in the stable.

After his longer-than-usual visit on Elaina’s lap, Sandy hops down, off to visit with more patients. Before long, the little dog and his handler will head home. It’s clear that both of them enjoy these visits immensely.

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.


How Rufus, a Therapy Dog, Builds Trust and Empathy in Local Teens

By In the community

In partnership with Ottawa Therapy Dogs, By Julianne Labreche

Every week, Ottawa Therapy Dogs’ handler Doreen Doré grooms her big gentle dog, Rufus, to get him ready to visit ‘the kids’ – local adolescents living with serious mental health issues.

Fortunately, thanks to a special program through the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO), these teens have already received treatment with health care professionals to help guide them back to a better place in their lives. Nowadays, these troubled teens — diagnosed with depression, anxiety and other mental disorders — are receiving ongoing community support as they return to the classroom through a CHEO satellite program called Centre Ado du Millennium.

The students attend école secondaire publique Gisèle-Lalonde, a French high school in Orleans, and that’s where Doreen and Rufus visit regularly to help brighten their young lives. female volunteer visits a local highschool with a Saint Bernard therapy dog

Doreen and Rufus are a team with Ottawa Therapy Dogs (OTD). They have worked with the teachers and staff at the high school for over three years now, the first therapy dog team ever to visit the high school. “I have no doubt that Rufus makes a difference,” says Doreen. “The kids seem to bloom like flowers with him. You can really see the difference. Some come along slowly. Others respond to him so quickly.”

For instance, she recounts how Rufus recently helped one troubled student. The Ottawa Therapy Dogs’ team arrived at the school just when the student was having an emotional meltdown, so a teacher asked Doreen to take Rufus to see the young woman immediately.

First, Doreen asked her if she needed to talk, but the girl replied ‘no’, so instead, Doreen just encouraged the student to lie down with Rufus. “She laid down with him for about twenty minutes. Then she got up and gave me the biggest hug. It just melts my heart, the amazing work that he does to help them. He loves them all,” she says.

More often, the visits are less intense — usually friendly, relaxed one-on-one visits with Rufus lying on a big blanket on the floor in an empty classroom while Doreen welcomes and chats with the girls. There are lots of hugs, pats and cuddles with the big Saint Bernard.

“Doreen and Rufus are helping in many ways,” says Antoine Lepine, a child and youth counsellor at the school. The therapy dog team helps the students to build attachments, trust and empathy, including for themselves. “The students have a lot of negative self-talk. We use the dog as a tool in the sessions. Their defensive barrier just melts away.”

He adds that attendance also goes up whenever the popular duo arrives at the school. And it’s not just the dog — he gives Doreen credit too.

Doreen is a strong champion for mental health. She feels strongly that mental health issues should be taken out of the closet, not kept secret. She is open in speaking about her own mental health issues, now well controlled. “I’ve always had a black cloud, “she says. “I was born with clinical depression.”

She is positive in her approach and a good role model for the students. She likes to be upfront with them, telling them that mental health is a disease but that there is help available to them, and hope.

Saint Bernard therapy dog relaxes on the floorThis is her second therapy dog. Her first dog, Brutus, also a Saint Bernard, was a foster dog that became part of her family over eight years ago. For Doreen, the animal-human bond is powerful. “My depression is like I’m wearing a peaked cap. The darkness was always there,” she says. “A few weeks after getting Brutus, I realized that the darkness was gone. It’s that unconditional love. He made a difference.”

When Brutus died five years ago, Rufus entered her life. Over the years, her dogs have helped maintain her own good mental health, so it feels natural for her share her dog with others. She has volunteered with Ottawa Therapy Dogs for nearly nine years now while busy with her job and her family. She sums up her volunteerism this way: “We do what we can to make our corner of the world a better place.”

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.