Charlie is someone who can bring joy to the sad, calming for people in turmoil or sickness; or he can just be a quiet friend in times of need.
Charlie is a therapy dog.
Each week, the five-year-old St. John Ambulance-certified standard poodle owned by Shirley McPherson, makes the rounds to places like Penticton Regional Hospital, schools and senior care centres to share his love.
“I think of the special needs student in the wheelchair at Maggie (Princess Margaret Secondary School) and Charlie stands up and puts his paws on the tray and the boy smiles and Charlie licks his fingers,” said McPherson. “It doesn’t take very much to bring joy to someone … it’s just a wonderful service St. John Ambulance brings to people in Penticton.
“There was also a man with Alzheimer’s at the hospital who we were invited in to see. He was agitated and walking around wondering what he was doing there. But we went in to sit with him and he remembered having a dog. He sat down and started telling me stories about his dog and it was very calming for him.”
Charlie is only one of more than a 100 dogs certified by St. John Ambulance in the Okanagan, who, along with their handlers, spend over 11,000 hours annually helping bring a little cheer to their soon-to-be best friends.
The program began in 1992 in Peterborough, Ont. and continues to expand as the value of the volunteer service continues to cross new boundaries.
Mike Watson of Kaleden is just one of the people who knows first-hand what it meant to have a visit from Charlie while he was in the hospital.
“I remember that dog,” said Watson about that time just over a year ago when he was at PRH. “He came in for a brief visit when I was in ICU. It was nice given the fact that at that point I wasn’t getting around anywhere. We lost our dog the previous November so it was a welcome visit.”
It was Watson’s partner Lisa Needoba who happened to see McPherson and Charlie walking in the halls.
“She (Needoba) came up to me and she said ‘I was wondering if you could bring your dog to see my husband, he’s very sick,’” recalled McPherson. “Charlie went in and went: ‘I’m just going to lay down and be here.’ I think it was very calming for both of them.”
Recently Watson, who received a portion of his partner’s liver in a live transplant in Hong Kong celebrated his first surgery anniversary and continues to get stronger.
McPherson remembers another time at the hospital, and it’s still one of her most poignant memories, of the impact their visits can have.
“One of the nurses invited us in to see a patient who was catatonic, nothing, no expression just lying there not moving and he put his paws on the bed and the person smiled and petted the dog,” said McPherson.
Charlie also has fun visiting schools, including Okanagan College, especially at exam time.
“One of the students last year took Charlie into a calculus exam and came back about 10 minutes later and said ‘You know what, everybody just took a breath and relaxed and I think everybody is going to pass,’” said McPherson. “Usually we just go in for a couple of minutes and he walks up and down the aisles to see if anybody has any food and the students just laugh and keep on working.”
Carole Patane, co-ordinator of volunteers at PRH regularly sees the impact of the therapy dogs throughout many of the hospitals wards.
“Absolutely it makes a lasting impression. Not just with the patients and residents but with the staff as well,” said Pantane. “You can tell right away by the smiles and the calmness, especially here (Westview Place care facility). It brings back memories of their pets they had at home and just having that contact with the outside world.”
Charlie was two when he had his first evaluation with St. John Ambulance… and failed but nailed it on his second attempt six months later.
Prior to that, McPherson was told by a friend who also had a therapy dog that Charlie had the personality to do the job.
“I said: ‘ah I don’t think so, I just want him to come when I call and not jump out the window when I’m driving,’” she said. “But I think by the time they’re three they get their brain.
“It’s just absolutely amazing what they do, they just seem to know and adapt and he figures things out really quickly. Interestingly he’s very tired when he comes home afterwards, even if he’s just laying down. I think he uses energy we don’t see.”
And the work is just as rewarding for McPherson as the people they visit, to be able to bring that little bit of joy that is in Charlie to someone else in need of a smile.