PROVIDING COMFORT- Connie Bohnsack and Rooster can often be seen visiting seniors’ homes

Dog visits can provide therapeutic benefits

St. John Ambulance pet program has been running for 10 years in City

For many people the benefits of having the company of a dog are taken for granted, but for some, they are uplifting and therapeutic.

St. John Ambulance Red Deer is just one of many locations that provide the therapy dog program.

The program was launched in 2002 in Ontario and has been running here in Alberta for 10 years now.

“One of the key reasons we got involved was the therapeutic effects of petting a dog including drops in blood pressure and the impact on state of mind for many people,” said Sandy Misselbrook, manager of community services for St. John Ambulance.

She explained that the results have been seen in people suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s to children and families in places like the Ronald McDonald House.

“There’s a non-judgemental affection that a dog can provide.”

In Red Deer teams of dogs and handlers go to seniors’ homes, hospitals and even work with children with learning disabilities.

In certain cases people who were extremely shy or non-verbal have opened up and spoken only to the therapy dog they met with regularly and children who read to the dogs have shown improved grades or reading abilities.

The therapy dogs and their handlers must go through a screening process and evaluation during which they are put into similar scenarios to what they may encounter on the job.

One team in particular currently visits the Ronald McDonald House here in Red Deer because of a personal connection the handler had to the organization.

“Teams that want to go into the Ronald McDonald House want to do so to make a sick child or their family feel a little better and help ease the stress. During that half an hour they get with the dog, they can forget about the pressures of life.”

People who have dogs at home might not notice it but for patients suffering from arthritis the simple task of pulling their fingers through a dog’s fur works on motor skills and coordination.

“The other neat thing too is that if seniors are losing their memories or suffering from Alzheimer’s they may remember the dog, the visits or simply acknowledge what a dog is.”

Misselbrook also said the dogs act as a catalyst for other relationships to develop.

“As the visitations continue the participants in the therapy dog program start to develop relationships with the handler or other people in similar situations as themselves. It’s a conversation starter.”

And it isn’t just the people petting the dog who benefit. Misselbrook said the staff associated with participants in the program see notable differences in the moods as well as states of mind of the people involved.

“And the family members benefit too when they see their loved on in a facility interacting with a dog. They sometimes see a side of whomever it is they’re visiting they wouldn’t have seen otherwise.”

Misselbrook added it has been said the visitations are terrific experiences and that people who take part are very grateful for the program because they didn’t realize what a positive effect it could have.

“People tend to be isolated from dogs in these places and petting a dog can evoke memories of their youth or past dog ownership experiences. Everyone benefits by having a friendly caring dog and owner coming in to visit.”

She also said for facilities looking to get involved with the therapy dog program or for handlers and their four-legged friends who want to get involved to do so by contacting Tammy Norris, community service coordinator at Red Deer St. John Ambulance at 403-342-7744 ext. 3103.

kpalardy@reddeerexpress.com