Written by Jenna Hobin

Melanie with Beans (Left) & Grits (Centre)

“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.

Grits

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.

Beans

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.”

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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.


Sadie making her appearance on "The Zoomies"

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 and Sadie

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 and Louis ready for their visit!

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.


Alexandra and Harry

“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.


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Written by Julianne Labreche , OTD Associate Member


Everyone needs a wise mentor when young, someone to smooth those rough edges and teach kindness by living it.


Copain, the big black standard poodle that works every Monday morning as a therapy dog with ALS patients at The Ottawa Hospital Rehabilitation Centre (TOHRC) had a mentor too. His name was Dylan, a big, friendly white standard poodle that lived with Michel Bourassa, his handler.


As a young dog, just six months old, Copain had lots to learn when he moved into his forever home with Dylan and Michel.


By then, Dylan was an experienced therapy dog. Michel and Dylan had been working in the ALS Clinic as volunteers for over three years, greeting outpatients and their families. Patients diagnosed with ALS are seen at TOHRC for medical interventions and rehabilitation therapies provided by an experienced ALS team.

Dylan

Even though ALS has no known cure, there is a great deal that can be done to improve a patient’s quality of life as the disease progresses. For that reason, these patients continue to make the trek regularly to meet with doctors, nurses and rehabilitation staff.


Nevertheless, these clinic visits often are difficult. Patients sometimes receive bad news, especially given the progressive nature of their disabilities. A friendly visit from a therapy dog team can go a long way to reduce the stress and anxiety that can accompany appointments.


Right from the beginning, Michel hoped that Copain would be a therapy dog too, just like his older dog.


Copain and Dylan

“The two dogs hit it off famously,” says Michel, retired and a volunteer with Ottawa Therapy Dogs (OTD) and The Ottawa Hospital. He remembers too that the energetic pup needed to learn a few good manners. Of course, there was the usual roughhousing in the backyard between the two dogs, but there were also carefully planned walks around the hospital grounds. Always leashed and with his young protégée in tow, Michel encouraged Dylan to be a good mentor.


Following Dylan’s example, Copain was taught how to be on his best behavior around the hospital, never pulling on his leash or jumping, always being friendly and gentle when strangers approached. Fortunately, the young dog learned quickly.


Then one winter’s day, bad news arrived. It came about the time that Copain, almost two, was about to be tested in an OTD therapy dog evaluation. Dylan was diagnosed with an inoperable tumor. Soon after, the dog died– a sad day for Michel and Dale, his wife.


Just one week later and still grieving, Michel picked up the leash and attached it to Copain. The time had come for new beginnings. Together, on one cold Monday morning in February 2017, this new therapy dog team walked across the icy park to the hospital. The little pup had grown into a big, gentle therapy dog, thanks, in part, to his best friend Dylan.


Since then, Michel and Copain have provided regular weekly therapy dog visits in the ALS Clinic. They’re still volunteering there. While Dylan will always be missed, it turns out Copain has a style of his own that seems to work its magic on many patients. Not all people like dogs, but most do. Michel – a shy, quiet, big-hearted man – respects that fact and never imposes his dog on hospital visitors or staff.


“The ALS clinic meets with patients and their significant others at a very emotional and vulnerable period in their lives,” says the ALS team’s registered nurse Susan McNeely. “Copain has the sweetest way of gently leaning his body into the person, providing them with his version of a hug.”

Staff sometimes benefit from the visits too, given the stressful nature of this emotionally charged work.

“Having a therapy dog team during the ALS Clinic has really made a difference for both patients and staff,” says Margo Butler, a speech-language pathologist on the ALS team. “They are a much needed calming and soothing influence.”


Michel is proud to show off a photo of Dylan that hangs in a nearby hospital corridor. In the photo, Dylan is standing next to former Governor General David Johnston who visited the rehabilitation centre during his time in office. Dylan and Michel also won various awards, including a national award from the ALS Society for their volunteer work.


Copain receives his share of recognition too, including being thanked during Volunteer Week at the hospital and before Christmas, sometimes with a bag of dried liver or other treats.


After all, loosely translated, the French word ‘copain’ means ‘friend’.

These days, there’s no doubt that Copain has made many friends among the patients, family members and hospital staff who have come to rely on these regular therapy dog visits for kindness and affection in troubled times.

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 handler with her previous dog, Paugan, a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever.


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