Who knew the key to better health would be a regular dose of fur?
Jerry Hook, a Kaleden resident, suspected that was the case. He stops by Village by the Station in Penticton with his black lab, Molly, each Monday as part of a passive healing program that is sweeping the country.
His faithful companion has been a St. John Ambulance certified therapy dog for over five years. When Molly was a puppy, Hook only required two obedience sessions to train the docile lab, who always gravitated to people. When she reached the one-year mark, Hook decided she should meet as many as possible.
“She’s just such a gentle dog, so I thought I could help someone out,” Hook said. “I get a lot of pleasure out of seeing the smiles on people’s faces.”
He makes a first stop at the adult daycare program, where Molly stands patiently as resident after resident walks past her in the hallway offering a pat or two on the head. The dog looks up now and then at who’s offering the latest piece of affection, wagging her tail at all passersby.
Once they’ve hit the larger group, Hook visits some of the residents in their rooms. Some of them have already planned ahead, buying treats for their four-legged friends.
“The visiting dogs, they make you forget about everything and smile for a bit. They’re just someone to love, even if you don’t have anyone else,” Station resident Christine Martell said. “They just make you melt.”
The St. John Ambulance therapy dog program was created in Peterborough, Ont., during the early 1990s. A group of dog enthusiasts decided to bring the program to Penticton in 1997, starting off with a small but dedicated crew who visited residential care homes.
Studies have documented the benefits of pet companionship on those who are hospitalized or living in long-term care facilities. Patients who pet dogs are found to have lower blood pressure, decreased agitation and refreshed minds for those struggling with confusion.
The other thing about dogs is they never judge who is worthy of affection or not; all receive unconditional love.
“Molly, I think she’s gorgeous,” Station resident Peggy Cruickshank said, leaning to give the lab a kiss. “What’s nicer than a dog?”
Sandy Karr, the regional facilitator, said the South Okanagan now boasts 35 teams of handlers and dogs. They work in facilities in Penticton, OK Falls, Oliver, Keremeos and Osoyoos, going to health-care facilities ranging from hospital wards to care homes.
Some return to the program even after their first partner passes on.
“We have about 35 teams, and we’re always losing a few. People retire or they move away, or sometimes it’s a situation with a dog,” she said. “But we’re putting through about five or six handlers who have already been through the program who are putting through another dog. They need a new partner.”
Karr herself has taken her Schnauser, P.J., to a care facility each Wednesday for years.
“It’s a good group. Facilities are always wanting them, and there’s never enough to go around. We do the best we can,” she said. “The people who are volunteers, they’re a really humble group.”
They’re looking for more handlers and the deadline to begin the paperwork and screening process is this week. The only requirement is a dog that is at least one year old and has a good temperament and general obedience. They are evaluated by a panel during an orientation session to see how the dog reacts to stressful or confusing situations like wheelchairs, loud noises or bigger groups of people.
“Not every dog passes, but most do,” Karr said, adding that evaluators work with owners. “They will talk quietly with the person and tell them what a wonderful dog they have and they’ll even suggest things they could do or where they could take the dog for extra training.”
Prospective handlers are always encouraged to come back with their dogs, too, as animals tend to become more calm with advanced years. “They mellow out over time. Even if they get into the program, they grow into the role,” she said.
As for breeds, Karr added, they take everything under the sun.
“We have every kind of breed. We have Burmese mountain dogs, we’ve had Dobermans — those dogs, they’re pussy cats, actually,” she said. “We have big dogs, then we have little-sized dogs. They don’t have to be pure bred.”
The experience is one that leaves a lasting impression on everyone involved — patients, handlers and dogs.
“They see you getting ready and they’re waiting at the door. They know they’re on,” she laughed.
Anyone interested in joining the St. John Ambulance therapy dog program should contact Karr by calling 250-493-5537.