When Powell River’s Deb Maitland describes her current role as the unit facilitator of the Powell River St. John Ambulance (SJA) therapy dog program as, “One of the best things I’ve ever been involved in,” she says it with an enthusiasm that’s contagious.
Residents of both Evergreen Extended Care Unit and Willingdon Creek Village have been thankful beneficiaries of these warm, furry visits over the years and the SJA therapy dogs have even found themselves invited into a handful of PRGH wards in the past few months, including oncology, inpatient psychiatry and acute care.
Originally designed to help geriatrics and the elderly, the effectiveness and broad appeal of the visits has resulted in the canine volunteers being asked to expand their therapeutic reach to include children struggling with reading and students struggling with school challenges, known as the Paws 4 Reading program.
Research has found that holding or petting the dogs can help lower blood pressure, reduce stress and anxiety and ease loneliness and depression. And Deb says the benefits of the program go both ways, with the dogs and their owners also enjoying the love and connection they get from helping neighbours in need.
“It’s not just the dogs who get attached to the residents,” says Deb. “I love the time that Jerry and I spend with people and we both grow very fond of the patients that we visit on a regular basis.” With the calming effect that a good therapy dog often has on everyone in the room, even the nurses and physicians love it when a therapy dog visits a resident or patient.
This St. John Ambulance program originated in Peterborough, Ontario more than 25 years ago and is growing in leaps and bounds in BC. The Powell River unit has gone from eight certified dogs when Deb became unit facilitator three years ago – all dogs and owners must go through a rigorous certification process – to 23 certified owner/dog pairs now and nine more on the way.
She’s excited because, so far, the number of volunteers has been able to keep up with the growing demand, primarily because of the willingness of dog owners to make a difference in someone’s life.
When asked what type of dogs make the best for the program, Deb advises, “It’s all about the temperament of the dog.” She explains, “While labs and golden retrievers make some of the best therapy dogs, we’ve got everything from purebreds to rescue dogs on our team.”
VCH staff or physicians wanting more information on the program should contact Deb through her Powell River’s Therapy Dogs Facebook page or email at PowellRiverTherapyDogs@shaw.ca