Giving back through dog therapy

Kate and Bronwyn

August 16, 2013

After rescuing Kate, an English Setter, from a dog shelter, Bronwyn Dickson would have never expected that they would one day be walking through the halls of a Toronto city hospital. Certified as a Medical Therapy Dog through Therapeutic Paws of Canada, Kate (accompanied by Bronwyn) makes regular visits to the hospital, providing much-needed therapy to patients. From room to room Kate and Bronwyn are greeted with smiles; the benefits of their visit are evident.

Interview with Bronwyn

GNT: What is your background?

BD: I work as a psychotherapist and a counsellor in private practice; I also work at Ryerson University in the counselling centre.

GNT: What made you want to get involved with Therapeutic Paws of Canada and dog therapy?

BD: Personally, my own interest, I’ve been a lifelong animal lover, and professionally, I see the value animals bring in terms of mental health and receiving physical benefits. I thought it would be a great way to give back to the community on a volunteer basis.

Bronwyn with Kate and a few of their friends

Bronwyn with Kate and a few of their friends

GNT: You’ve had Kate for over a couple years. What made Kate a suitable therapy dog?

BD: It was her temperament, that’s what they look for in terms of making a decision of whether a dog would be appropriate to be a therapy dog. She is really tolerant, very patient and now she is a confident dog. Not a lot of things jar her and that’s the kind of dog you want to have; a dog that isn’t going to be aggressive, shy or fearful, because you never know what kind of situation you might encounter in a hospital. Now when I ask her if she wants to go to work she knows this means the hospital so she dances and spins, runs around and we put her vest on. She really loves it, and it has also become part of her own therapy.

GNT: What is the role of a therapy dog in a hospital setting?

BD: Their role is therapeutic. They will help people who may be recovering from physical ailment or sometimes people recovering from a mental health concern. Even now you might have seen therapy dogs popping up at universities around exam time to help students manage stress. It’s a way to give them a bit of a break from things that are going on. The presence of an animal can encourage conversation, reducing feelings of isolation and loneliness. Petting an animal can trigger endorphins that will help people feel calmer, so there are a lot of benefits.

GNT: What kind of tests did Kate have to go through to be an approved medical therapy dog?

BD: It took a while, but the test is the main deciding factor as to whether a dog becomes a therapy dog. It’s a twelve-step test where the dog is evaluated by four people to see how the dog responds to different situations that would mimic what you might encounter at a hospital or long-term care facilities. For example, maybe scenarios where someone would be approaching with a walker or a wheelchair, or someone displaying erratic behaviour. They are also tested to see how they respond in the presence of other dogs.

GNT: And how has Kate reacted to the hospital visits?

BD: She loves it, her tail is wagging, she is going around exploring, saying hello to people. She is also really great with children and she’s very patient and curious. One time there was a circle of cardiology residents and she was going around taking her time with each person, and she flopped down, waiting to get a massage.

GNT: How do you inform dog owners that might want to be a part of the therapy dog program?

BD: Regularly when I’m at the dog park whenever I see a dog with a nice temperament I speak with the dog owner and let them know about the program. I think a lot of people don’t know it’s possible for their pet to become a therapy dog. In terms of dog rescue, for anyone who is thinking of getting a dog I strongly encourage adopting. Rescue dogs give back so much when you invest a lot of time with them; they give back so much love.

Action Items:

  1. To find out more about Therapeutic Paws of Canada visit: www.tpoc.ca.
  2. If you are interested in adopting a dog from a shelter read our article on Fred Ni and his blog: Finding Shelter Dogs a New Home Through Blogging
  3. To find out about Toronto Animal services visit www.toronto.ca/animal_services.

About the Author(s)

Mark A. Cadiz

Mark A. Cadiz is a Toronto based freelance journalist whose works have been published throughout Canada and France.

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