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'.
What do Jenny, Aspen, Lia, Bracken, Chara and Jaz have in common?
They are just six of the many golden retrievers owned by breeder, Ann Lambert. What makes these Goldens special, however, is that their owner has been visiting children in local hospitals and schools with them for over 35 years and has been part of Ottawa Therapy Dogs (OTD) since it first began.
Long before dogs, horses, rabbits and birds were featured on social media as a complementary therapy, Ann recognized the power of animals to assist humans in a multitude of ways. As a former school teacher, she chose to share her dogs' love with children and first started visiting with the Golden Retriever Club and St. John Ambulance before excitedly joining Ottawa Therapy Dogs when it was established in 1999. Ann has been a handler with OTD ever since.
At least a few times a month, Ann can be spotted heading into the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) with one of her two current therapy dogs. In a special room on the fifth floor in Pediatrics, Ann and her dog welcome children with a variety of conditions ranging from cystic fibrosis to traumatic brain injury and eating disorders. She often breaks the ice by sharing a photo book she created for each of her dogs. Like a baby album, the books display each dog’s life beginning as a puppy with favourite activities or foods, and a few silly poses.
The children are quick to connect with both Ann and her therapy dog. "Some kids don't want to leave the visit,” she says, "and parents are grateful for the feeling of normalcy their children experience in the often frightening and unpredictable hospital setting."
Ann recalls a ten-year-old boy who was too sick to come to the therapy room. With special permission, Ann and Lia visited him in his hospital room. The boy could not see, hear, or move, so Ann placed Lia on his bed and took the boy's hand to gently stroke her. Although the boy showed no apparent awareness of Lia's presence, his nurses watched in astonishment as his heart rate dropped on the monitor next to his bed. While this is a well-known benefit of animal-assisted therapy, handlers themselves rarely get to see the dramatic effects documented on a screen.
Ann and her dogs can also be found at any one of CHEO's many community events including their annual teddy bear picnic where Ottawa Therapy Dogs teams up with Responsible Dog Owners of Canada (RDOC) for an important message. This partnership was originally spearheaded by Dr. Mary Jean Duncan, a plastic surgeon at CHEO, with the goal of reducing the number of children presenting in the ER with dog bites by using therapy dogs to teach children and their parents how to safely approach a dog.
Last year, Ann and Bracken III also showed up in their pyjamas to help calm children at CHEO’s annual flu clinic. And because not all children escape the nasty virus, Chara and Jaz have been trained to retrieve a tissue from a box whenever they hear a sneeze, a trick that never fails to prompt a giggle from hospitalized children.
"Children and dogs just go together", says Ann, who herself is always quick to establish a positive rapport with everyone, young and old. Michèle Taché, a child life specialist at CHEO who leads their pet therapy program, agrees.
"Ann is just so devoted to her dogs and to her visits at CHEO. Her dogs have a very special way. They are very patient and will stay in awkward positions for up to half an hour to adjust to the physical or emotional needs of the children and youth. Ann is wise and insightful; she can talk as much or as little as need be. She reads patients and their families well."
It's no surprise, then, that parents report their child smiling for the first time in days when they visit Ann with one of her therapy dogs. Or when children surpass their physiotherapy goals because of the extra motivation the dog provides. It's also common to see children more relaxed heading into surgery after spending time in the comforting presence of Ann and her dog.
Ann helped pioneer animal-assisted therapy at CHEO and she continues to act as a resource and mentor to new teams to ensure the success of this valuable program so Ottawa Therapy Dogs can play an important complementary role in children’s health care for many years to come.
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.