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.
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.
This 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.