Written by Karen Luker


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'. 


After having worked as a teacher for 30 years, Bruce Patterson is saying a final goodbye to his Grade 1-2 students at Arklan Public School in Carleton Place. As retirement looms, he reflects on the multitude of memories he will take with him. According to Patterson, one of the highlights of his last four years at Arklan has been his relationship with Ottawa Therapy Dogs.


Every Wednesday morning, Golden Retriever Scotch and his handler, Beth McKibbin, enter Patterson's classroom for a brief question and answer period, followed by four individual reading sessions with children who have been chosen ahead of time. While reading to a dog has been shown to help struggling readers, Patterson shares Scotch's precious time with all of his students.


"I never realized the positive impact that having a dog around can have on kids in such a short time: they want to be at school, they want to be around the dog", states Patterson, who signed up for the program the moment his principal proposed it. "There is no judgement and he brings out the best in everyone, including kindness and acceptance. It's the highlight of our week."


Scotch had some big paws to fill. His predecessor, Myko - also McKibbin's dog - passed away suddenly at age nine while an active volunteer at the school. To say the students were devastated is an understatement. "Myko was one of the kids as far as he was concerned. And they just adored him", states McKibbin.


McKibbin credits Patterson and the children with helping her through her grief. Patterson sets up a memorial every year for the children to mark the anniversary of Myko's passing, to remember and celebrate one of the best classroom helpers they ever had. Patterson feels this has been a good life lesson for the kids, one that also made him realize just how quickly and deeply the children's lives were touched by Myko.


In the meantime, everyone waited with eager anticipation while Scotch was being evaluated for his potential to become a therapy dog. Patterson and the students celebrated his success and welcomed him with open arms when he arrived. Scotch is now a weekly visitor to the school, and the kids couldn't be more thrilled.


When the Grade 1-2 kids were asked what they thought of Scotch, the compliments poured in: "he is cute, awesome, special, a good listener, wonderful, and smart. I like how soft you are, that you are gentle, and that you listen to me."


While Patterson agrees with the students' assessment, he has a deeper understanding of the impact the dogs have had. He shares that the benefits go way beyond fostering the children's love of reading. In the presence of the therapy dog and volunteer, children open up about what is going on in their own lives. He recognizes Scotch's contribution, but quickly points to McKibbin as having a genuine interest in each and every child. "She's truly an exceptional volunteer", he says. "She really wants to know how to best meet their needs and how the program is helping them. She also takes a special interest in children with exceptionalities, going out of her way to make a connection with them."


McKibbin also recognizes the many benefits of the program. "While I love seeing how the kids build their confidence with reading, I'm surprised by how they just open up and say anything and everything to me in the presence of the dog. It blows me away how relaxed the children feel." McKibbin recalls a child sharing information about a dangerous situation at home. With Patterson and the school's help, the child and his family were connected with critical community resources.


With Patterson now retiring, Scotch will add to his responsibilities: helping to ensure a smooth transition by teaching his replacement the ropes. And there's more to this success story - McKibbin is now readying Mungo, her third Golden Retriever, to become a therapy dog. While he won't get to know Bruce Patterson, the staff of Arklan Public School will no doubt find a place for him!

 

Karen Luker has been a member of Ottawa Therapy Dogs since 2006. Currently an associate member, she visited the Bruyère Continuing Care Palliative Care Unitweekly for eight years with her miniature dachshund, Gogo. She is also the authorof "Un chien dans ma chambre? La médiation animale en soins palliatifs", published in Ces animaux qui aiment autrement (2015), a book on the many benefits of the animal-human bond.






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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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Written by Karen Luker


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.


“It’s time for school!”  When Lily hears her mother say these words, she begrudgingly heads down the stairs to the laundry tub.  Her sister Daisy recognizes the routine, and positions herself in front of the door in the hopes that she might get to go as well.  But sixteen-year-old Daisy can only watch with envy as her sister, 13-year-old Lily, goes through her regular grooming routine in preparation for her favourite day of the week.  Although she doesn’t like her bath, Lily does enjoy the one-on-one attention provided by her mom, Mary Jane, and the excitement of attending local schools and libraries in her role as an Ottawa Therapy Dog.


Mary Jane Maffini is a former librarian turned mystery novelist.  When she isn’t accepting awards or attending conferences, Mary Jane is mom to her two loving dachshunds, Lily and Daisy.  She is also the leader of a one-woman-one-canine team of visitors to local schools and libraries, where she helps children develop their reading and other skills.


Kaiya is all smiles after having finished her reading session with Lily at Berrigan Public School.

Mary Jane has been a volunteer with Ottawa Therapy Dogs for more than 10 years.  While Daisy is now retired, Lily continues to be a regular visitor in the Ottawa area.  For four years, she attended Berrigan Public School, where she helped up to four children with their reading every week.


Mary Jane refers to herself as “an invisible handler”.  By this, she means that students focus on her dogs, forgetting there is a human at the end of the leash who provides the support.  Kids are so excited to be chosen to participate in the program that they burst with excitement whenever they are asked to leave the classroom for their “remedial” session.


There are other ways that Berrigan students have learned from Daisy and Lily which extend beyond reading.  Some children who have been raised to fear dogs have gradually developed an appreciation for the human-animal bond.  Their parents have as well.  For example, some children were able to sit with Mary Jane and her companion, but not touch the dog.  Gradually, families have come to recognize and accept that touching a dog can be a safe and beneficial experience.


Mary Jane emphasizes the importance of encouraging children to develop a joy of reading.  Sometimes, it’s not about the mechanics of decoding a word or answering a question about a story correctly; it can be the simple act of laughing together about something silly a character has done, or sharing thoughts about a great illustration (think of Snoopy crying!)  As Mary Jane puts it, “The joy of books hasn’t come to those children yet, and Lily helps.  Many kids who have trouble reading just don’t have that joy.  Because being with a dog is a pleasurable experience, Lily can help be the bridge.”


Mary Jane recalls an 8-year-old student who was new to Canada.  Although he could sound out any word, he did not have the knowledge of English he needed to understand most of what he was reading.  Mary Jane set up a familiar scenario whereby Lily didn’t understand either, and together, Mary Jane and the student figured out the vocabulary and the sentence structure required for “Lily” to learn.  Mary Jane sums it up best, stating, “The students all get what I’m trying to do through the dog, but they just play along.  Teaching the dog gives them a purpose and takes the spotlight off them needing the help.  They can relax, and they are thrilled when I tell them Lily thinks they are helping her.”


Daisy and Lily don their scarves for their visits.

Being a dachshund, Lily isn’t shy about expressing her likes and dislikes.  She has favourite stories, including Ten Little Hot Dogs.  The book contains predictable, repetitive vocabulary – a safe endeavour for many struggling readers.  Thanks to his practice with Lily and Mary Jane, one grade one student increased his confidence in reading aloud, earning himself a personal copy of the book.  When Mary Jane subsequently asked him if he had read the book to his mother, the boy grinned and proudly told her that he had read it to his entire class.


These are the experiences that make Ottawa Therapy Dog volunteers return to their assignments over and over again.  Dogs such as Lily and Daisy are simply “props”, a foot in the door, a key to unlocking a treasure of enjoyment and learning.

And it isn’t just the students who benefit from their time with the dogs.  School teachers, staff and the principal always make a point of coming out to talk to Lily.  “That’s okay,” says Mary Jane, “I have my own friends.”


Author’s note:  Shortly after this article was written, Daisy passed away and Lily took a well-deserved retirement.  The article has been kept in its original form as a tribute to these hard-working gals.


 

Karen Luker has been a member of Ottawa Therapy Dogs since 2006.  Currently an associate member, she visited the Bruyère Continuing Care Palliative Care Unit weekly for 8 years with her miniature dachshund, Gogo.  She is also the author of “Un chien dans ma chambre? La médiation animale en soins palliatifs”, published in Ces animaux qui aiment autrement (2015), a book on the many benefits of the animal-human bond.






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