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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.



For the past 6 years, Mireille Pitre has entered the doors of Le Transit school on Wednesdays during her lunch hour.  Le Transit is a specialized francophone school which provides both teaching and clinical intervention to children who have special learning and/or behavioural needs.  Programs are developed and delivered in partnership with many health and social service agencies in the National Capital Region.  Most of the students attend for a few years and then reintegrate into their neighbourhood school.





What makes Mireille’s presence unique is that she is accompanied by her fluffy, blue-eyed companion, Loki.  Pitre recounts falling into her role as a volunteer when she overheard a family member talking about Ottawa Therapy Dogs.  Pitre recognized Loki’s calm demeanour from the time he was a puppy, and enjoyed his presence as she devoured countless books in her spare time.  The Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.) program, in her opinion, would be the perfect marriage of two of her greatest loves.


And so it came to be that Loki was introduced to the children of Le Transit.  Although Mireille had not been around children much prior, she learned that she could connect with them almost effortlessly through Loki.  “I learn about how the children learn simply by watching them interact with the dog.  Loki helps me figure out what motivates them”, states Pitre.



Loki is always up for the challenge.  He selects a book from an array by placing his paw on one when he hears “choisis” (choose).  At times, Loki decides he’d rather roll onto the book collection.  Laughter ensues, and the kids are hooked.

Pitre works closely with Johanne Beauregard, a teacher at the school.  Beauregard is part of a multi-disciplinary team who constantly seeks methods through which to engage and encourage the students.  “It’s a brilliant idea”, says Beauregard.  “The program goes way beyond simply helping the kids with their reading.  They come out of their shell; they feel more confident.  The students also feel safe, relaxed and at peace during the time they spend with Loki”.


Both Pitre and Beauregard also describe the impact that Loki has had on students who are fearful of dogs in general.  Despite their apprehension, many children ask to attend a R.E.A.D. session because it’s one of the most popular activities offered by the school.  Loki and his handler have obliged by providing gradual exposure to the dog in a controlled, predictable environment.  Success stories abound.


Loki, despite not being able to understand (or read!) much French, interacts with the students on a whole different level.  In his case, one might say it’s all about the language of love.


Beauregard recalls a student who was severely withdrawn both in and out of the classroom.  In Loki’s presence, the child attended each reading session with enthusiasm and a smile.  Reading became fun and the student blossomed.

Pitre shares her astonishment with the progress the children make as well.  “To see a child who can’t read at all, who isn’t motivated to read, tell me he read a book to his dog on the weekend, that’s priceless”, says Pitre.


Pitre’s own love for the program has inspired her to ensure Loki’s legacy lives on.  She is now raising Atlas, who is meant to take over when Loki retires.  In the meantime, Loki has another job – ensuring Atlas learns as much as he can from him in preparation for his own turn as a therapy dog.  If Pitre and Beauregard have anything to do with it, the school’s students can look forward to many years of support and success.

 






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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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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