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Sit, stay, heal

Visits from therapy dogs ease stress for hospital patients

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 9/12/2019 (242 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Juno has a smile that can light up a room — or, in this particular case, an entire hospital wing.

Her effect is immediate. From the moment she walks through the sliding glass doors at Misericordia Health Centre to the time she finishes her rounds an hour later, the golden retriever has received a pat or a hug or a "good girl" from nearly everyone who has crossed her path.

How to join

St. John Ambulance thoroughly vets all its therapy-dog-and-handler teams before sending them into the community.

In order to receive a branded vest and volunteer assignment, human candidates need to first go through an hour-long orientation session and then take their dog in for an evaluation to assess the animal’s temperament, personality and relationship with its handler. Both steps are free of charge.

The first level of certification allows a dog-therapy team to work with adults. The evaluation includes an assessment of the animal’s ability to remain calm around people who use mobility aids such as wheelchairs, crutches, canes and walkers.

St. John Ambulance thoroughly vets all its therapy-dog-and-handler teams before sending them into the community.

In order to receive a branded vest and volunteer assignment, human candidates need to first go through an hour-long orientation session and then take their dog in for an evaluation to assess the animal’s temperament, personality and relationship with its handler. Both steps are free of charge.

The first level of certification allows a dog-therapy team to work with adults. The evaluation includes an assessment of the animal’s ability to remain calm around people who use mobility aids such as wheelchairs, crutches, canes and walkers.

Volunteers need to pass a second evaluation to work with children and people with disabilities.

Handlers must be 18 years old or older, physically and mentally capable of volunteering and willing to complete a criminal record and other background checks.

Dogs must be fully vaccinated (current veterinarian records are required) and a minimum of one year old. They also can’t be on a raw diet.

Teresa Toutant, St. John’s director of community services, says successful therapy dogs come in all shapes and sizes.

“We have dogs ranging from papillons all the way up to mastiffs,” she says. “We’re hoping for a dog with a calmer temperament, dogs that don’t mind being petted, dogs that are social and like interacting with people they don’t know.”

While all dogs can become therapy animals, Toutant advises that not all dogs are cut out for community service.

“A lot of dogs aren’t meant to work as a therapy dog, they’re meant to be out there (catching) a Frisbee,” she says. “Different strokes for different folks and it’s the same with the dog world.”

Once a dog and handler are certified, they are given a volunteer assignment based on need and preference. Separate volunteer orientation sessions may be required, depending on the assignment.

To register and learn more about the program, visit sja.ca and search for therapy dog services.

Even though Juno’s weekly visits are designed to comfort patients, maintenance staff, nurses and doctors seem equally soothed by her serene expression and flaxen fur.

Juno is just three years old but has the calm demeanour of a much older dog — a trait that made her an ideal candidate for the St. John Ambulance therapy dog program. She has been volunteering at Misericordia with her owner Lindsey Steek one morning a week since being certified a year-and-a-half ago.

"I wanted to give back to the community and this is something that I thought people would really enjoy," Steek says. "I have to say, I think we get way more out of it than anyone else."

On the day the Free Press visited, the pair was volunteering in the hospital’s transitional care unit, a 111-bed area that serves patients returning home after medical treatment or moving into a personal-care home or into palliative care. The goal is to have patients discharged within 90 days, but stays on the floor can vary.

Therapy dog Juno visits Tunney Hovorka at the Misericordia Health Centre in Winnipeg. Juno's calm demeanour made her an ideal candidate for the St. John Ambulance therapy dog program. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Therapy dog Juno visits Tunney Hovorka at the Misericordia Health Centre in Winnipeg. Juno's calm demeanour made her an ideal candidate for the St. John Ambulance therapy dog program. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

"I always cheer for them when they get to leave," says Steek, who has gotten to know many of the residents in the unit.

Juno provides an easy conversation starter. People who spend most of their time in their rooms venture out into the hallways whenever she comes around. While they give the dog a scratch behind the ears, they chat with Steek about their weekly activities and offer personal details about their life.

"They all have a story and... there are lots of people here who don’t have any family, they have no one to visit with and so we become pretty important in their lives too," Steek says. "I feel like I’ve expanded my whole group of friends."

Sitting in a wheelchair outside of his room, Tunney Hovorka perks up when he sees the therapy team round the corner in their volunteer uniforms — Juno with a red and black St. John Ambulance vest and Steek wearing a sash and shirt to match.

Therapy dog Juno visits Wendy Findlay (left) and Helen 'Betty' Courtney (right) with owner Lindsey Steek at the Misericordia Health Centre in Winnipeg. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Therapy dog Juno visits Wendy Findlay (left) and Helen 'Betty' Courtney (right) with owner Lindsey Steek at the Misericordia Health Centre in Winnipeg. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

For Hovorka, the visits take him back 20 years to his hunting days, when his own dogs would accompany him on trips into the Manitoba wilderness.

"I love dogs — I’ve had them all my life... the last dog I had was a golden retriever," he said, referring to a dog named Boo.

Hovorka whistles to Juno like someone who has spent a lifetime practising bird calls while explaining what he likes about the breed.

"Everything. There was so many things to like about them; they’re gentle, they’re notoriously smart," he says, adding that he "can’t say anything bad about any dog."

Hovorka says he has been having a difficult time since his wife of 68 years died. He looks forward to the visits from Juno and Steek.

"It’s healthy for me... it gives you energy," he says. "They become very good friends of yours."

Down the hall, resident Rita Wilkins agrees.

"It’s very helpful. I feel more relaxed with an animal," says Wilkins, who seems on the verge of happy tears when she presses her cheek into Juno’s soft fur. "There’s nothing like animals — animals can do so much good for us all."

Therapy dog Juno visits Tunney Hovorka at the Misericordia Health Centre in Winnipeg. Juno provides an easy conversation starter for people who spend most of their time in their rooms. (Mikaela MacKenzie / WInnipeg Free Press)

Therapy dog Juno visits Tunney Hovorka at the Misericordia Health Centre in Winnipeg. Juno provides an easy conversation starter for people who spend most of their time in their rooms. (Mikaela MacKenzie / WInnipeg Free Press)

Wilkins has had pets all her life. When she and her husband moved into a residence that didn’t allow dogs, they adopted a kitten from the Winnipeg Humane Society. Miss Bea remains an important member of their family.

"She’s 13 years old now and she’s at home with my husband and I miss her," Wilkins says.

When their shift is over, Steek walks Juno to the ward exit and assures residents they will be back in a week’s time. A pair of women sitting in the hall call goodbye to Juno as she saunters through the door.

Misericordia has been offering dog therapy visits through St. John Ambulance for the last 15 years. There are three teams that volunteer regularly in the hospital.

"It’s a fair commitment for the volunteer because they go through the St. John program and meet all their requirements and then they have to go through our orientation process as well," Misericordia volunteer co-ordinator Lynn Horton says, adding that the time commitment means a lot to patients. "It’s light in a person’s day."

St. John started its therapy dog program in Ontario the 1990s with the goal of providing comfort and combating loneliness for seniors, adults and children in a variety of community spaces. For dogs that volunteer in the health-care sector, their presence is a stark contrast to the beeping machines and intentionally drab decor found in most hospitals.

St. John started its therapy dog program in Ontario the 1990s with the goal of providing comfort and combating loneliness for seniors, adults and children in a variety of community spaces. At Winnipeg's Misericordia Health Centre, therapy dog Juno visits Rita Wilkins. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

St. John started its therapy dog program in Ontario the 1990s with the goal of providing comfort and combating loneliness for seniors, adults and children in a variety of community spaces. At Winnipeg's Misericordia Health Centre, therapy dog Juno visits Rita Wilkins. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

"Overall, hospitals are fairly sombre environments. When you see a dog, whether it be a patient, a doctor or a nurse or anyone in the hospital, the environment lightens up almost immediately," says Teresa Toutant, St. John Ambulance’s director of community services.

"Petting dogs relieve stress, anxiety, emotional stability, but it’s also been proven to have some physical effects, (like) the lowering of blood pressure.

"When a dog is around in a hospital, it’s a very calming distraction for everyone."

There are about 130 dog-and-handler teams working in hospitals and personal-care homes in Winnipeg.

"Our program is growing… but we can always use more (volunteers)," Toutant says.

eva.wasney@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @evawasney

Eva Wasney

Eva Wasney
Arts Reporter

Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.

Read full biography

History

Updated on Tuesday, December 10, 2019 at 12:05 AM CST: Fixes several typos in photo captions.

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