Therapy dogs bring friendship to seniors and children

Program brightens lives and benefits overall health

Therapy dogs have proven to be beneficial to the health of everyone, but their effect is felt even more when they visit seniors residences and schools. When dogs from St. John Ambulance’s therapy dog program go to care facilities such as Willingdon Creek Village, the place lights up, according to care staff.

“It’s quite lovely because some of our residents who aren’t really responsive to any other programming actually come alive,” said Willingdon Creek recreation worker Pamela Dubé. “It’s really heartwarming programming and the residents absolutely love seeing the dogs, petting them and giving them treats.”

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The dogs come alive, too. Lilly, a Briard breed sometimes referred to as a heart of gold wrapped in fur, and Lexi, a Leonberger, a giant breed with a big heart, were recently at Willingdon Creek for their weekly visit. Many of the residents awaited their arrival.

According to the dog handlers and owners, while Lilly and Lexi enjoy the attention they receive, the dogs are really into the treats.

“She has a great time,” said Bob Kimmel who, along with Joyce Genttner, handles Lilly. “She has her favourites, the ones who give the biggest cookies, and she knows where they are; she’ll run to their rooms.”

When she visits, Lilly pokes her head into every room, said Genttner. “She likes the loving she gets,” she added.

Willingdon Creek resident Sylvia Stoddart is a former physiotherapist and a founder of Powell River Therapeutic Riding Association. She said she looks forward to when the dogs come
“because I love them.”

St. John Ambulance’s therapy dog program was introduced in Powell River by Gale Alsgard and Marie Rumley in 2011. Audrey McLeish is the current program coordinator.

According to McLeish, dogs visit Willingdon Creek, Evergreen Care Unit, area schools and two group homes in the city. Powell River General Hospital has declined the service, she said.

The program currently includes 13 volunteers and nine dogs, three of which are child-certified.

Lexi, handled and owned by Ulrike Koleszar, is the only dog currently going into schools.

“The dogs will sit on a blanket and the kids come and read to them about five to 10 minutes each,” said Koleszar. “I go to Edgehill School and they bring in kids; they cuddle with the dog.”

Koleszar said the children become less frightened or inhibited by the relaxing presence of the animals.

Therapy dogs are different than service dogs. While service dogs train only to assist the handler, therapy dogs are meant to be everyone’s best friend. They are trained to visit public facilities, accept strangers and can be any breed of dog.

Therapy dogs are at their best for relieving anxiety, aiding with dementia, encouraging communication, promoting socializing, helping people overcome speech disorders and assisting with autistic children.

While the dogs enjoy treats and attention, there are rewards for their owners as well. Koleszar said she likes to make people happy with her dogs because she knows it’s helpful to them.

That sentiment is shared by Kimmel and Genttner, who said the visits brighten their own days.

For more information about the St. John Ambulance therapy dog program, go to sja.ca.

Copyright © 2017 Powell River Peak

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