Healing Paws

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

I don’t need to speak dog to know that the Siberians are eager to go. While musher Daryle Mills is setting up the sled and lines, Breast
the dogs jump, skincare
yip, howl, whine and bark, their eyes on Mills, their bushy Husky tails curled high. If they weren’t securely attached to a strong chain, which is anchored to Mills’ parked truck, they’d be leaping toward us—60-odd pounds each of solid muscle and single-minded focus, driven by what seems to be a deeply-embedded instinct: the urge to pull a sled over a snowy track.

The sled ready, Mills raises his voice to be heard over the tumult and gives me a quick lesson on how to harness a sled dog. There’s going to be a tricky moment where I’ll have to unclip the dog from its chain to get the harness down to its shoulders, and then clip it up again. During this moment I’ll have to hold the dog tight. “The number one rule is never let go of your dogs!” he emphasizes.

Mills of course makes it look easy, but at 5’3” I’m pretty sure I’m at least a foot shorter than him, and he confirms that I’m less than half his weight. I get the feeling that with one excited lunge the dog could pull me right over. Holding the harness open, just as Mills demonstrated, I move toward Bear, a black-and-white beauty with clear blue eyes, who jumps and barks with excitement. I grab tight to his collar, talking soothingly to him. Mills is right beside me ready to help out if needed, and in a few seconds I’ve got the harness on. Success! I help harness up a few of the others.

My next job, explains Mills, is to hold the two lead dogs once he clips them to the sled lines, giving him time to get the other dogs in place without the whole thing descending into a chaos of tangled lines and adrenaline-fuelled dogs. After that, he says, things are likely to move quickly. “The dogs are going to want to go,” he says. “When you hear me yell, ‘Get in the sled,’ you jump in that sled fast.”

Spirit and Dreamer, today’s lead dogs, are cooperative. I hold tight to their lines while Mills attaches the others in formation behind them. And then, it’s like he said—I hear his shout and I jump in the sled as it starts to move up the trail. Mills springs onto the runners behind me and we’re off.

Snow, speed, wind, the dogs’ strong haunches pulling mightily in front of me, the sled flying through the air and bouncing down as we go over bumps—I’m dog sledding!

This is what Daryle Mills does: he takes people dog sledding. The owner-operator of Vancouver Island Dog Sledding and the Ateemak Siberian Dog Sled Skool, Mills shares his 90-acre Dove Creek property with 20 Siberian Huskies. He feeds them, trains them, breeds them when the time seems right, and, throughout the winter, he takes them sledding on trails at the foot of Mount Washington.

Clients from all over the world hire Mills and his dogs to give them a taste of what Jack London, author of the famous sled-dog story Call of the Wild, called “the pride of trace and trail”—the magic of dog sledding.

And while dog sledding is a wonderful addition to the variety of winter adventure recreation available on Vancouver Island (as far as Mills knows, he is the only commercial musher on the Island), it is also, for Mills and his dogs, so much more than that.

Mills, a Native of Cree and Dene descent, says dog sledding is, above all, a way to honor and preserve a First Nations tradition that goes back thousands of years. “It’s about keeping the culture alive and sharing it with others,” he says.

This sharing can be surprisingly powerful, says Mills. In fact, his main focus for the past three years has been on harnessing (no pun intended) the healing potential of dog sledding for First Nations youth.

In 2007, aided by a grant from the Victoria Foundation, Mills embarked on a pilot project teaching First Nations youth affected by Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) to work with the sled dogs. Administered by the Wachiay Friendship Centre in Courtenay, the program has seen approximately 100 youth go through so far.
Mills sees these young people make huge strides. “I’m so proud of all of them,” he says.

On a practical level, they learn skills such as basic carpentry (there are dog houses to be built, kennels to fix, and more), work with sledding equipment, and typical farm chores associated with keeping animals.

Taking care of the dogs teaches the kids empathy and responsibility. Working as part of a team helps them learn communication skills. Sledding gives them a much-needed experience of adventure and challenge. And above all, they gain self confidence and a sense of cultural connection.

Ten of the participants have continued to work with Mills and are now competent mushers. He hires them regularly as assistants for his recreation clients and also gives them the opportunity to compete in sled races.

As far as Mills is aware, this program is the only one of its kind in the world. However, the healing potential of dogs is nothing new. Dog visits in hospital and long-term care facilities have been proven to increase the well-being and medical outcomes of the patients. Dogs provide incredibly skilled and caring services for blind and physically handicapped people; they soothe and focus kids with learning disorders, and are even used in literacy programs. As well, numerous scientific studies now verify what most ‘dog people’ have always intuited—just having a pet dog has positive benefits on health and longevity.

Mills doesn’t need any scientific studies to confirm what he witnesses and feels every day.

“There’s something about humans and dogs,” he says. “I sometimes think it’s in our DNA.”

It’s in his DNA, for sure. Mills is originally from Fort Chipewyan in Northern Alberta, where his Cree and Dene ancestors lived in symbiosis with their dogs until relatively recently, when snowmobiles took over.

“I grew up around dogs. My grandfather had dogs. My uncles had dogs,” he says. “My people have been a dog culture for thousands of years. It was part of our whole lifestyle and part of our culture. Dogs were our protection, dogs hunted with us, dogs carried our burdens. Just like it is with the horse cultures, we have our stories and songs about them.

“Dogs have a big spiritual significance to us. This is part of what I teach the kids. One of the first things we do in the program is to sit in the sweat lodge while I tell them some of the old stories.”

One of his favorite stories comes from the Anishnabi people and it recounts how dogs came to be human companions. Mills shares a shortened version with me:
Long ago, human beings lived as one among many beings on the planet. But the time came when human beings began to violate the sacred laws, says Mills, his voice slowing and deepening as he steps into the storyteller role.

The human beings became careless with how they used the plants of the earth and how they hunted prey. They became greedy and impatient. The other animals of the earth grew angry, and decided to wipe out the human beings entirely. But the dogs took pity on the humans and wanted to protect us. They befriended us and helped us survive. For this, they were banished from the wild kingdom and given the task of carrying our burdens. To this day they protect us from the wrath of the wild kingdom. They bark when a bear comes close, and they bark when a cougar comes close, always warning us of potential danger. They have become part of human culture, human communities and human families.

Mills has found dog stories from sledding cultures all over the world. For instance, the Chukchi of Northern Siberia say that dogs know the spirit world. “They guard the gates of heaven, so when you die, you go to the gates of heaven on your sled. The dogs determine if you will pass through or not, depending on how well you treated your dogs while you were alive,” he says, a twinkle in his eye.

Mills didn’t set out to be a musher. He says it was a dog, Kavik, who made that decision for him.

Eighteen years ago, Mills had a career in security and body-guarding—a seemingly natural fit given his large frame and calm demeanor. He was helping a friend in a dangerous situation keep safe, and at the same time was called away for a security job. He didn’t want to leave his friend unprotected. He remembered the old story about how dogs are charged with protecting us, and wondered if that could be the answer.

The next day he opened the newspaper and saw an SPCA ad with a picture of a Siberian Husky/wolf cross named Kavik. Following his instincts, he adopted the dog and took him to his friend, where he seemed to know naturally what his job was.

Later Kavik came to live with Mills. His second dog, Misha, appeared out of the bush a few months later. Mills saw her sniffing around his truck one day near Merville. He put her in the truck with Kavik and the two of them immediately got along. Mills tracked down her owner who, it turned out, was looking for a new home for her. And so Misha too went to live with Mills. After that, more dogs found their way into his life, each with their own story.

With the dogs came an interest in sledding, Mills says. At that point in his life, he’d already begun a journey of rediscovering his roots, searching out Native wisdom and learning Native traditions such as drumming and storytelling, so it was a natural step to seek out elders who could share some of the old knowledge.
“For the most part,” he says, “I’m a self-trained musher. I read every mushing magazine I could find, I talked to the elders, I tried and failed and tried again, learning by experience.”

Sledding remained a hobby as Mills gradually shifted away from security and became a youth worker. Like everything in his life, this was a natural progression as he followed his heart.

“Because I’d been learning about native traditions, people started asking me to come be a resource, to talk to kids about native culture, things like sweat lodges and drum-making, so I started volunteering a lot. Eventually I went to college to get the certificate and I turned my hobby into my work,” he says.

He spent a few years working with young offenders and providing cultural programs for youth; in the meantime, he had about eight dogs and was mushing in his spare time. Once again merging his hobby with his work, he came up with the idea of a dog sled program for youth at risk. The idea garnered three-year funding as a pilot project, and thus was born the Ateemak Siberian Sled Dog School.

Last year, he expanded his operation to offer recreation and adventure rides to locals and tourists under the name Vancouver Island Sled Dogs.

The recreation rides can vary from a short “express” ride to get a taste of the trail, to a full three-hour workshop where participants learn the basics and get a chance to try mushing.

He has plans and dreams for both endeavours. His idea for the recreation sledding is to acquire property on the mountain. He envisions a cozy log cabin with the kennels around it, and perhaps some simple cabins for guests to stay in while participating in dog sledding programs. This setup would allow him to offer residential workshops with sledding and First Nations cultural programs, and to live with his dogs right next to the snowy trails they love.

In the more foreseeable future, he wants to offer day-long dog sledding trips into the back country. “There’s something indescribable that happens when you’re out there for four, five hours, just you and the dogs and the snow and the forest. It affects you really deeply,” he says.

Mills’ vision for the youth program is to share it with other communities. “I’d like to see us get more funding to go on the road and take it to different Native communities, like some of the reserves up North, and help them set up a program like this. It wouldn’t be hard to replicate and it would work so well in those places,” he says.
These sound like ambitious goals, but Mills doesn’t worry too much about them.
“I feel like I’m being guided in all this. Things just seem to come to me when the time is right. The way my dogs have come to me,” he says. “Really, it’s all about the dogs. People think I train them, I teach them, I lead them. Actually, they lead me.”
Out on the trail, watching Spirit, Dreamer, Joe, Bear, Dakota and Angel leap ahead, pulling me swiftly along the snow, I have a similar feeling—it’s all about the dogs.
There is Mills standing behind me, a powerful presence to be sure, an experienced musher, calm and in control. And there is myself, full of enthusiasm, fuelled by childhood readings of Call of the Wild, giving myself over to a wonderful new experience. But it is the dogs that give this experience its color; it is the dogs I will dream about; it is the dogs that raise this fun recreational activity to an archetypal level, connecting me to something ancient and simple and beautiful.

Toward the end of the ride Mills gives me a chance to mush. I stand on the runners; controlling the sled with the brake and dogs with my voice. At first he sits on the sled, his weight and his presence an assurance that things won’t feel too out of control. Then he has me stop the dogs and wait while he walks up ahead, leaving me to experience mushing on my own.

The dogs want to follow him. I see Angel’s feet dig into the snow; her hindquarters surge; she’s ready to run. I stand down hard on the brake, talking to them in a deep calm voice, the way I heard Mills do it.

Perhaps it’s my imagination, but I sense that the dogs are listening to me; they seem to calm for the length of a slow exhalation. A couple of bright-eyed faces turn back to look at me.

And just then, something shimmers and shifts in my experience: I’m no longer just a curious onlooker, a cultural tourist having a unique experience. I forget that I’m feeling nervous, I forget that I’m writing an article, I forget that I’ve got dozens of emails waiting for me when I get home. Instead, I feel the strength of my legs standing on the runners; I feel the dogs’ excitement and the effort of their self-control; I feel their good will and their love of the trail.

Mills signals to me. I jump off the brake and onto the runners, shouting to the dogs, “Let’s go! Let’s go!” I feel the Huskies’ power and eagerness come up through the soles of my feet as the sled leaps forward, flying along the snow.

For more information about Vancouver Island Dog Sledding and the Ateemak Siberian Dog Sled Skool, go to

It’s easy to see why Samara, a 10-year old Samoyed, is a beloved pet. Her luxurious white fur calls out to be petted, her dark eyes brim with steady affection, and the curl of her bushy tale clearly says “happiness” in a language everyone can understand.

But Samara is much more than a pet. She has an occupation. In fact, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to call her a health care professional.

Samara works one-on-one with seniors who face multiple, often debilitating, health challenges; she teaches life skills to youth with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder; she even helps children learn to read. She has been credited with bringing people back from the brink of death, and has helped ease the passage of those who can’t be brought back.

Samara has spent the last eight years as a therapy dog with the Comox Valley division of the St. John’s Ambulance Therapy Dog Program.

Every Monday afternoon, Samara, along with her human guardians, Dave and Carol Fletcher, is on duty at The Views, St. Joseph’s Hospital residential care unit. She also regularly visits Abbeyfield House and a number of other facilities, she assists in evaluating and training new dogs for the program, and she accompanies Fletcher to speaking engagements and community events as a canine ambassador for the program. All in all, it’s a job that requires lots of time, dedication and a variety of skills.

I see these in action one Monday in mid-February when I accompany Samara, Dave and Carol on their rounds at The Views. As we get started, Fletcher points out, with obvious pride, that this is Samara’s 701st visit.

The Views is both a heart-wrenching and a heart-warming place. Heart-warming because you can see how much care and energy goes into making the residents’ lives comfortable and meaningful. The staff is kind and attentive; there are big windows letting in light and a view of the estuary; there are bingo games, card games, manicures, visits by a hairdresser and other organized activities.

But it is also heart-wrenching, because regardless of all that, The Views is still an institutional setting, a far cry from the warm embrace of a family home. Residents of The Views often have multiple medical conditions, such as dementia and limited mobility. Quite a few are in wheelchairs.

“For most people, this is their final address. The average life-span of people who move here is five months,” says Dave Fletcher, who as well as being Samara’s guardian is also the unit facilitator of the local St. John’s Ambulance Dog Therapy Program.

Samara’s role, in this setting, is to cheer people up and encourage them to connect to the world around them.
She is very good at her job.

Dave leads Samara around The Views on a leash, stopping to meet people in the hallway, visiting residents in their rooms, and making their way around tables in the common area. It is there that Dave spots Mike, reclining on his wheelchair. His facial muscles are slack, his eyes unfocused.

Dave heads over to Mike, pulls a chair up beside him, and motions for Samara to jump up onto it. Many of The View’s residents need Samara to come to their level so they can see and touch her. For a moment Mike’s eyes remain dull, his face passive, but then a bright spark of interest shines as he recognizes who it is. Slowly, he turns his head, which is supported by a headrest on his chair, in Dave and Samara’s direction. Dave says hello and moves easily into friendly small talk as he reaches down, picks up Mike’s hand and places it into the soft fur of Samara’s neck.

As his hand connects with Samara’s warm body, Mike’s face transforms—the change that comes over him is as dramatic and uplifting as when the sun suddenly emerges from the clouds after hours of rain and gloom. His hand works in Samara’s fur, and he starts to answer Dave’s questions. Samara sits calmly, looking right at Mike, and, I would swear, smiling.

This sort of scenario repeats throughout Samara’s hour-long visit. It has been proven that therapy dogs can improve physical and mental health, enhance vocabulary and memory, and increase sociability and movement, and that petting a dog reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, distracts from chronic pain, and helps people deal with grief. But it is one thing to read these assertions in print and quite another to see it in action.

Many of the residents know Samara, and are ready for the weekly visit with dog treats stowed in their pockets.

“The dog provides emotional support for people,” explains Fletcher. “They get to know Samara and look forward to her visits.”

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