Written by Jenna Hobin
“When we volunteer, I find that dogs are naturally drawn to people who need support the most. They bring smiles to the faces of those who may be feeling lonely and down.” As a handler for her two dogs, Grits and Beans, Melanie Chenel first got acquainted with Ottawa Therapy Dogs in 2011 at an event for the Government of Canada Workplace Charitable Campaign. A new owner to a vibrant young border terrier who was a puppy at the time, Melanie recalls visiting Beth McKibbin and her majestic golden retriever to inquire about Grits’ potential to one day be a therapy dog himself.
Fast-forward two years, and Grits officially earned his way to becoming an Ottawa Therapy Dog after successfully passing his evaluation—a moment that sparked tears of joy for Melanie. For a former French teacher who now works in the field of human rights, Melanie’s innate compassion led her to go through the evaluation process again with her second dog in 2015. Adding Beans, her amiable chocolate lab, to the Ottawa Therapy Dogs’ family was Melanie’s way of bringing twice as much joy to those in need of comfort.
Grits, who is now 10 years young, has been a source of positive support for patients in a long-term care facility located in rural Ottawa for close to 8 years. His patience and composure enable him to visit with patients suffering from illnesses such as dementia, which make it difficult for them to engage in verbal conversations. In quiet contentment, Grits brings immediate happiness to those he meets.
For many patients, their family members may no longer know how to engage with them as an illness progresses, and others no longer have living family members or friends to visit them. Our Ottawa Therapy Dogs teams are their support system. As Melanie says, “My dogs help bring light in the day of those they interact with, and I wanted to contribute in this way.”
Beans, who is now 8 years old, is full of personality and thrives on the attention she gets from patients and their families. Her extroverted personality made her the ideal candidate to provide support to those in need of shorter-term care and higher levels of engagement. The profound impact of her visits was recently recognized by the family of a long-term care patient whose family recounted the memories of Melanie and Beans in their mother’s obituary following her passing.
For Melanie, one of the most meaningful aspects of being an Ottawa Therapy Dogs handler is seeing the smiles from those Grits and Beans have the opportunity to interact with, including staff members at the facilities.
As an avid believer in the therapeutic benefits brought by therapy dog visits, Grits and Beans have been a personal source of calm and comfort for Melanie herself. For her, bringing joy to others positively influences her own mental well-being by knowing that she and her dogs are able to leave a positive mark on those in need of support in such a meaningful way.
When Melanie, Grits and Beans aren’t busy counting down the days until they can return to in-person visits, they are enjoying walking, hiking and swimming at their rural home. She hopes that others consider joining the Ottawa Therapy Dogs team to help make a difference in our community. As Melanie says, “I would encourage people to reflect on how important their impact can be on the lives of the people they touch.” She continues, “Being a part of Ottawa Therapy Dogs can be life-changing, not only for the individual, but also by extending support to their families and loved ones.”