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Ottawa Therapy Dogs

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.

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.

 

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.

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.