Written by Julianne Labreche


Cedarview Animal Hospital is one of OTD's key supporters for 2018/19. As part of this new partnership, three talented writers - Judy Beltzner, Julianne Labreche and Karen Luker - have teamed up to produce some very inspiring stories about our 'good dogs doing GREAT work'.  This story has also been featured on Cedarview Animal Hospital's blog.


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.

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.





Written by Judy Beltzner


Cedarview Animal Hospital is one of OTD's key supporters for 2018/19. As part of this new partnership, three talented writers - Judy Beltzner, Julianne Labreche and Karen Luker - have teamed up to produce some very inspiring stories about our 'good dogs doing GREAT work'.  This story has also been featured on Cedarview Animal Hospital's blog.


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, a beautiful black lab – golden retriever cross. 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.





Cedarview Animal Hospital is one of OTD's key supporters for 2018/19. This story has also been featured on Cedarview Animal Hospital's blog.


The role of dogs as mental health practitioners has long been known, at least to readers of the Peanuts comic strip:



Now, research conducted at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario proves that they really do help.   Valerie Gendron, an Occupational Therapist in CHEO’s In-Patient Psychiatry Program, participated in a research project to assess the impact of unstructured animal visitation on youth who were hospitalized with mental health difficulties.  1, 2


The study, based on 41 adolescents with a mean age of 15 years, concluded that the patients saw the visiting therapy dogs as supportive, felt connected to the dogs, enjoyed the visits, felt calm and soothed, and became more mindful and less stressed.  They also indicated that they would continue to use connections with animals – either with their own pets or perhaps just recollecting the therapy dog visits – to help calm and comfort them after their discharge.


Two of Ottawa Therapy Dogs’ teams visit the In-Patient Psychiatry Program on alternate Fridays.  Jill Sullivan accompanies her dog Jasmine, an 11-year-old boxer who survived cancer after surgery to remove part of her mouth.  Jasmine thinks she is uniquely beautiful, and the kids at CHEO definitely agree!   Sylvie Lambert visits with Luther, a loveable Golden Retriever who sometimes dresses up as a lion!


Valerie, Jill and Sylvie all describe the dogs’ visits in the same glowing terms.  Something about the dogs’ presence, they say, calms the kids down, makes them more approachable, breaks through the reservations and trepidation they might have about being in the hospital. The dogs serve as role models for calmness and mindfulness: they live in the moment and are intensely present.  Young patients can talk to the dogs more freely than to people, and new pathways are thus be opened up for therapists to follow.  During the pet visits, “you see a side of these kids that you don’t see any other time.” 


Attesting to the bond the patients form with Jasmine and Luther, some patients have asked to delay their discharge until after the dog’s next visit.  One patient who had been admitted with severe behavioural issues returned to CHEO’s Teddy Bear Picnic after his release from hospital, just to see Jasmine.   Patients who are very stressed may want to brush Luther for a while: the linear, repetitive motion calms them down, and Luther certainly doesn’t object!


Ottawa Therapy Dogs also plays an important role at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. Dr. Judy Makinen is a Clinical Psychologist with their Youth Psychiatry Program and has incorporated animal-assisted therapy into her group sessions with youth for many years – first with Dakota, and now with Fraser, a 6-year-old Golden Retriever.  When Fraser joins Dr. Makinen’s group sessions, he brings a sense of calm and an openness for the youth to share their mental health struggles and experiences.


Last summer, Fraser was quite ill and he lost half of one ear. Dr. Makinen thought she would need to retire him because of his appearance. However, she brought him in to group session anyway, which lead to a wonderful therapeutic discussion about body image issues, fear of judgement, and acceptance. Their comment was, “everyone should be like Fraser, he doesn’t care what other people or dogs think of his appearance.”  Interestingly, Fraser tends to be drawn to the most guarded and socially awkward youth (the underdogs, so to speak). 


Fraser also attends some individual therapy sessions, particularly with youth who have difficulty trusting people and are generally ambivalent about engaging in therapy. He facilitates safety and trust. If the youth can attach to a dog, then they tend to open up to the owner. Fraser has been very effective at assisting in alliance building and therapeutic interventions, such as exposures (e.g., fear of riding elevators). Fraser accompanies the youth during the in vivo exposures, thus making it easier for

them and more fun.


Jeanne Gallagher and her big, black Goldendoodle named Buddy have also been regular visitors to the ROH Youth Psychiatry Program for 4 years.



Jeanne describes how much the patients look forward to Buddy’s visits.  Many of them miss their own dogs, especially the youngsters who have come to Ottawa from Nunavut and are far away from home.  They say that when Buddy is there, he brings a feeling of normalcy – of home – to the hospital environment.  There is no language barrier for them when they talk to Buddy in Inuktitut!


Jeanne also tells the powerful story of a young boy who had never been exposed to dogs before his hospitalization.  He had a “meltdown” when he heard that Buddy would be visiting and at first refused to enter the room.  After a while, he would wait at the door, and eventually made his way inside.  Finally, after several weeks, he became so attached to Buddy that he spent the whole 45-minute visit with Buddy’s head on his lap.  When he was discharged, he bought his new friend a dog toy as a farewell gift!


In sum, there is no doubt that therapy dog visits ease the anxiety levels of the young patients in mental health programs.  And as an added bonus, they also make work more enjoyable for the dedicated staff who work in those programs, contributing to their mental wellness too.  From all perspectives, it’s a good thing when the “dogtor” is in!


Author’s note:  Shortly after this article was written, Jasmine passed away and Buddy took a well-deserved retirement.  The article has been kept in its original form as a tribute to these two amazing therapy dogs & their handlers.


[1] Inpatient Psychiatry “Pet Therapy” Evaluation Study: Patient Experiences and Satisfaction with the Inpatient Psychiatry “Pet Therapy Program”.  Marysia J. Lazinski, Psychology Resident, Stephanie L. Greenham, Supervising Psychologist, Valerie Gendron, Occupational Therapist.  July 2017.

[2] Research Poster – OTD in CHEO’s Inpatient Psychiatry Unit

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