Written by Julianne Labreche
When I was a little girl, I remember crying when I watched any animal movie. Tears rolled down my cheeks seeing Lassie orThe Incredible Journey or even animated movies like Bambi or Lady and the Tramp. That’s the power of the animal-human bond when you’re a small child watching a screen.
Now that I’m an adult, I still love animals and always will. I grew up with dogs and had some wonderful dogs during my adult life, including a special therapy dog – a beautiful Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever – that worked in a local hospital with me helping stroke survivors with communication impairments. That dog still brings tears to my eyes. When you love a dog, any dog, the pain of losing that dog may fade but it never goes away entirely. That’s the power of this bond.
Still, I admit feeling a tad cynical initially when asked to watch and report on virtual Ottawa Therapy Dogs (OTD) visits taking place at a local Ottawa nursing home. It just wouldn’t be the same watching ‘The Zoomies’ as OTD likes to call these online visits that connect therapy dog handlers and their dogs to long-term care residents during the pandemic. The technology, like any screen, has its limitations. You can’t pat the therapy dog’s soft fur or stroke them. You can’t smell them after they’ve been so nicely groomed for a visit or hear that tail wag in happy anticipation when you come close. It’s just not the same.
It’s a different experience, there’s no denying it. Then again, the magic of the animal-human bond remains, especially for anyone who loves animals. Just because there’s a screen, those warm feelings don’t go away.
More importantly, look at it from the perspective of the long-term residents themselves. As homes move in and out of outbreak, activities may need to be rescheduled to keep resident’s safe. Visitation is currently restricted due to the pandemic with only essential and designated care givers permitted to visit their loved ones. With a two-person limit on designated care givers in place, social contact is unfortunately limited at this time.
So, from a resident’s perspective, maybe an interactive visit with a therapy dog and handler could be pretty nice – for the right patient, of course. For some, it could even be the most exciting event of the entire week.
So I decide to be an observer and to watch a couple of these visits. I press the Zoom link on my home computer. With consents obtained and confidentiality guaranteed, I’m permitted to enter my first therapy dog session. Soon it begins.
Antonia Mcguire and Sadie, a red-coated Labrador retriever, appear on the screen. Antonia is a friendly, outgoing OTD volunteer who tells me later that she really enjoys her Saturday visits online with the residents at St. Patrick’s Home, a local long-term care facility in Ottawa. She’s happy to share Sadie, her much-loved family pet, with a few residents each week. Intentionally, each visit is kept short, limited to about ten minutes. A staff person holds an iPad at the opposite end of the Zoom call. It’s not so easy visiting beyond about forty-five minutes every Saturday as it’s tiring both for her and her dog keeping residents engaged within this artificial milieu.
It’s been a learning curve for everyone. Antonia volunteered at St. Patrick’s with Sadie for two years before the pandemic struck. Earlier, she went through the usual screening, orientation and testing carried out by OTD’s trained evaluators. Those face-to-face visits were important for residents, she remembers. Her six-year-old dog, so friendly and playful, helped her connect to residents. A strong emotional bond sometimes happened between the residents and the dog.
“I knew it wouldn’t be the same experience,” Antonia recollects, reflecting on the transition to online visits after teams were no longer permitted into their facilities because of Covid-19. But she was willing to give the virtual world of therapy dog work a try and to learn. She and Sadie have been doing virtual visits since last summer. She’s convinced these pet visits make a difference.
“It’s interesting to see there’s still an emotional connection,” she observes.
St. Patrick’s Home staff shares the same enthusiasm. “I should say that at first I was not sure,” emailed Erika Hollander, a recreologist who works with residents there. “I thought people with dementia may have difficulty connecting with a dog on a screen.”
Instead, the therapy dog program had the opposite effect, she notes. “Residents were excited, connected, even brought to tears with the happiness they felt. Our first visit showed me immediately that this was the way to continue our partnership with Ottawa Therapy Dogs. We are so very grateful for the people who came together to bring this joy to our residents.”
I begin to realize the impact that these visits have for some residents. I decide go online to watch a different visit. I press the Zoom link. Again, I’m allowed to enter the session as an observer. This time, I’m staring at two real cuties, Harry and Louis, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels. With their long, silky ears, big eyes and cuddly looks, no wonder the breed has been known historically as comfort dogs.
Harry is the official Ottawa Therapy Dog, Alexandra Wood, the handler explains. This team worked at the Montfort Hospital prior to the pandemic. Now they’ve been recruited for the virtual visits at St. Patrick’s Home. Because the Zoom calls are conducted out of Alexandra’s home, Louis gets to share the screen too. Louis is the younger of the two dogs. “The apprentice,” Alexandra calls him.
Alexandra has spent a lot of time organizing these visits. She focuses her efforts on the screen, making sure her dogs are always in good view for each resident during the visits. She tries for close-ups of the dogs, when possible. She encourages the staff person at the other end of the Zoom call to help direct comments and questions from the resident. She listens carefully. She has taught her two dogs some fun tricks to keep the residents amused and interested in the online visit. The dogs take turns weaving between poles, ringing a bell, and leaving treats placed near their paws until permitted to eat them.
“The point is to see the dogs, not me,” she says. The results are usually always positive. “The residents seem really happy from what I hear,” she says, “especially if they had dogs themselves.”
Doing therapy dog work online isn’t so easy, she notes. “It’s more tiring for the dogs and myself.” It’s all about pacing, not overdoing it and keeping the sessions short. Although she volunteers for the benefit of the residents in the long-term care home, she also has her pets’ best interests at heart. She works to ensure they’re having fun and not tiring from the stimulation of the tasks.
A resident at the other end of this Zoom call reaches out, touches the screen and seems to want to touch the dogs too. I see the resident smile. It’s clear that she’s connecting with the dogs, even though she can’t pat them.
I’m sure that in the months ahead there will be more published research in the fields of psychology and mental health about virtual pet therapy visits. New ‘buzz terms’ are already being emerging. These visits are being called “animal-related engagement,” or “animal-related stimuli.” Research studies will be designed. Numbers collected. Conclusions drawn.
Meanwhile, I’d say simply that the virtual therapy dog visits are a great alternative to not being able to visit in person and much better than whatever could have been imagined. The animal-human bond, it seems, travels well through cyberspace. Thanks to some dedicated therapy dog volunteers, a few determined health care staff and several friendly, good-natured dogs, these visits are making a big difference in long-term care.
If you need more evidence, I’ve got the Zoom links to prove it.
About the Author: Julianne Labreche is a former therapy dog handler with OTD, a past OTD Board member, a retired health care professional and the author of the children’s story The Woman Who Lost Her Words, a story about the power of animals to reconnect children to people who have had a stroke.