Healing Paws

St. John’s Ambulance therapy dogs find their way into the hearts of seniors…

Samara’s companionship can help bring clarity to patients suffering from Alzheimers and other types of dementia. “We’ve had people who can’t keep track of what day it is—except for Mondays, when they know exactly when the dog is coming for a visit,” say Fletcher.

Petting the dog relaxes people and helps them communicate comfortably, he says. “They put their hand on Samara, and the conversations start coming out. It gets their brains flowing again.

“People with dementia, they can forget they had kids or a spouse, but they’ll always remember they had a dog. In a lot of cases our visit will bring that out for them; they’ll scratch their head to remember the name of their first dog, and the synapses will start closing.”

Spending time with a therapy dog also brings physical benefits, he says. “There was one lady with advanced Parkinson’s. She was in a wheelchair and her arms and legs would flail around. Samara would jump up next to her, she’d wrap her arms around the dog, and her body would become still and calm.” Another man with severe arthritis in his hands gets relief from running his fingers through Samara’s fur.

Sometimes the therapy dog’s effects are truly dramatic. Fletcher recounts a case from the United States, where a mental health patient was becoming highly agitated every evening, flying into rages. “He’d end up tearing the room apart and needing sedation.”

Only the dog could prevent this. Staff arranged for a therapy dog to come visit every evening for about 10 minutes. The effect was magical: there were no more violent episodes, and no more need for sedation. This meant a far better quality of life for the patient, a more harmonious atmosphere for other residents, and a much easier time for the staff. Clearly, dog therapy is more than just a charming way to cheer people up.

Mind you, cheering up can also have dramatic benefits. As an example, Fletcher shares a story he calls “Samara’s first save.”

“We had a lady at Abbeyfield House; she was 89 years old and had been complaining that all her friends had died and she had nothing to live for. Clearly, she was depressed, and then she had a heart attack, followed by pneumonia. They said it was the end of the line for her. We went over to visit her. Samara jumped up on her bed and the woman found enough energy to give Samara a big hug. That lady went on to recover, and afterwards all she’d talk about was the dog who rekindled her will to live.”

The St. John’s Ambulance Dog Therapy Program began in 1992 in Peterborough, Ontario, and soon became so widely popular it spread across Canada, and has also been adopted by several other countries. The history of St. John’s Ambulance as an organization goes back much further, to about 1,000 years ago in Malta. Over the years it has been involved in many different activities, all centred around healthcare—building hospitals, providing battlefield medical care in both World Wars, and, today, providing certified First Aid training all over the world.

The Comox Valley Dog Therapy Program started at the end of 1999. Fletcher was among the very first group to be certified, with his dog Kara.
The Comox Valley therapy dogs provide regular visits to eight venues: the Comox Valley Seniors’ Village, Casa Loma, Glacier View Lodge, The Views at St. Joseph’s Hospital, Cumberland Care Facility, Abbeyfield House, Berwick House, and Mark Isfeld High School.

At Mark Isfeld, the dogs work with special needs youth. “Lately, we’ve been taking the kids out for a walk with the dog, so they have a chance to learn about responsibility and control. The kid holds a leash and is the one in charge; we hold another leash as back-up. As well as learning about responsibility and control, they get a bit of a break from the classroom, they get some exercise and fresh air, and often the walking draws them out and they get quite chatty,” says Fletcher.

Another program that helps young people is the Reading Tails Literacy Program at the Courtenay Library. This supports children who are having challenges learning to read, by allowing them to read aloud to the dog. This both motivates and relaxes them. Learning comes much easier without the performance anxiety attached to reading in school or to parents. Reading to a canine friend increases confidence and makes reading more fun. A trial run earlier this year was deemed very successful; Fletcher is just waiting to bring more dogs on board so the program can continue.

Eight new dogs qualified to join the Comox Valley therapy dog team in early March, bringing the total number of participating dogs to 36. This means the Comox Valley program is the largest on Vancouver Island. Nonetheless, Fletcher has to continually work at attracting more volunteers.

“We have to constantly recruit. Sadly, dogs don’t live as long as we do, and a lot of dogs don’t settle down enough till they are six or seven years old, so we have quite a turnover.

“We need to keep in the public eye. I’m the coordinator, so I’m constantly on the move, going out to speak to the Kiwanis Club or the Rotary Club, attending community events, that kind of thing. “Also we have to do fundraising. It costs about $50 to put a dog in the program; there’s liability insurance, the scarf (for the dog) and shirts (for the handler).”

At $50/dog, this is a low-overhead program. “We worked it out that it costs on average 21 cents per visiting hour. You won’t find health care any cheaper than that,” says Fletcher.

Anyone with a dog can apply to the program. Dogs and humans qualify together, as a team. All dogs go through a thorough evaluation consisting of 13 different tests for temperament, obedience and socialization. The human volunteers are given an orientation and go on a trial run with an established handler to gain experience in the field. Finally, the dog and its person go out on their first visit together, accompanied by a St. John’s Ambulance evaluator who observes, and if necessary, provides debriefing after the visit.

The minimum requirement for volunteer dog/person teams is one visit per week, but many do more than that, says Fletcher. Many of the volunteers are retired seniors who appreciate having a meaningful way to contribute to their community.

Fletcher speaks eloquently of the rewards of volunteering with Samara. “To actually work with a dog you end up with a stronger bond than you thought possible. Dogs love to work and their enthusiasm draws you in.”

Ultimately, what motivates Fletcher is his deep respect for the dignity and value of every human life. “The best thing about this work is that you are making a difference in someone’s life,” says Fletcher. “I had one chap, who’d been round on a visit with one of the therapy dogs, say to me afterwards, “I’m not doing that again. It’s too depressing. Why would you do that?” I said to him, “That’s exactly why I do it! “Because it is depressing, and Samara and I can help. It’s an abnormal environment, and you want to help people in it feel normal. To them, it’s a bright spot in their day.”

Anne Wilde, an 86-year-old resident at The Views, enthusiastically backs this up.

“I love the dogs, and I have one favorite and it’s Samara! She’ll sit in my chair beside me and look at me, and I say ‘okay’, and I get a kiss and a slurp on the cheek. She is so sweet, so sweet. But I love all of them. They know where the drawer with the cookies is and go straight to them, and then to me!

“It’s a very good program for everyone. As soon as the dog comes in people notice it and want to pet it. Even for people who can’t speak or move much, or aren’t thinking clearly, they still will recognize a dog and put their hand out to pet it. It’s just wonderful.

“The dogs love it too,” she adds. “They want to be petted; they put their heads down on your lap; and their tails wag like the dickens.”

Fletcher has no doubt that Samara loves her work. Dogs like to have a sense of purpose, he says.

The history of the dog/human relationship is full of examples of working dogs –shepherds, guard dogs, sled dogs, hunting dogs—and as human society changes, it makes sense that dogs’ occupations have evolved, too. For Samara, and the many people she visits each week, this is good news.

One Response to Healing Paws

  1. As TD Coordinator in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario I love to read what the other groups are doing. This is a wonderful article about Samara. I see this every time I visit the homes in the Sault. Some of my residents I visit call my sheltie and angel with four paws and it is so rewarding to see a very sad face break into a smile. It has been heartwarming to read this article. Thank you so much for recognizing the wonderful work our canine do. Bless all our wonderful volunteers and dogs.
    Lynne & Dallas