History of Ottawa Therapy Dogs
In 1999, after some years as a therapy dog volunteer, Marilyn Benoit became a member of Therapy Dogs International (TDI), an organization established in 1976 and based out of New Jersey, USA. TDI brought formal training and assessment of dog teams into therapy work with incorporation of the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen (CGC) basic obedience requirement; which met Marilyn’s vision for high service standards for Therapy Dog volunteers (teams). Others shared this vision and, in January of 2000, formed Chapter 156, the first Canadian chapter of TDI, “Ottawa Therapy Dogs (OTD)”.
OTD set goals aimed at responding in an efficient manner to the aspirations of both those who wish to become therapy dog volunteers, as well as the needs of facilities inviting this program in their communities. We also worked on providing ongoing in-service education for our members about all aspects of volunteer work related to the safe delivery of high quality therapy dog programs.
OTD started out with seven members (evaluated by a Toronto-based TDI evaluator) delivering service in several Ottawa facilities. In 2002, one of our members qualified as a certified TDI evaluator and we began to increase the numbers of OTD teams. In 2003, in an effort to better represent the local needs of our community, our members voted to establish a fully autonomous organization. This required a high level of volunteer commitment and organization, as revenues were limited and no paid assistance was possible. As a result, we became incorporated as a non-profit charity in Ontario and obtained our designation as a Registered Charity from Revenue Canada. Ottawa Therapy Dogs Inc. was officially born.
Since that time OTD and its teams have increasingly engaged in community, training, and research projects. We are a member agency with Volunteer Ottawa and Volunteer Canada and, through hard work and diligence, have earned a respected place in the Ottawa-Gatineau area for our therapy dog programs. That reputation relies on both the dedication and commitment of Ottawa Therapy Dog members to excellence in all our services.
In 2006, we participated in a research project (directed by Dr. Sandra Lefebvre from University of Guelph, Ontario Veterinary College) aimed at assessing potential transfer of microbial pathogens between patients and therapy dogs visiting Ontario Hospitals (zoonosis). The purpose of the study was to assess concerns expressed from some organizations and facilities about the presence of dogs in hospital settings and provide concrete scientific information review and publication in scientific literature. The study demonstrated that Ottawa Therapy Dogs teams and their cleanliness protocols were effective in preventing any evidence of microbial introduction to, or transfer between, patients in facilities studied. This study has proven very useful in allaying fears of infections from well managed and hygienically conscientious therapy dog teams by possible detractors of therapy dog programs.
At international conferences and national programs we have learned about the variety of applications of therapy dog programs. Most people know about pets visiting patients or residents; however, many members also provide Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT), which involves working with members of a health care team to help meet goals set by the health care professional and the patient.
One of the areas of AAT is in stroke rehabilitation. This is the work of one of our members, Julianne Labreche, a speech-language pathologist at The Ottawa Hospital Rehabilitation Centre. Her work with her dog, Paugan, explored the effect of a therapy dog on an adult with aphasia, a communication disorder caused by a stroke, and is documented in an article published in the American-based Journal of Communication Disorders.
Another application of AAT is with persons who have had a brain injury. We work with occupational therapists or physiotherapists helping patients regain mobility or strength. Recreation therapists and social workers guide us in work which can involve palliative care for end of life care or behaviour modification with those who may feel depressed, angry, aggressive or socially isolated. Often these patients respond to the dog’s presence when other interventions don’t work.
Some teams work with day programs for the Ottawa-Carleton Association for Persons with Developmental Disabilities. These teams work closely with the program’s staff to assist their clients in developing social skills by walking,handling, gently grooming the dog or simply hugging and petting. Working with a dog can be less threatening than with another person and the clients learn valuable life skills that they can apply in human interactions.
Sometimes the Handler is wallpaper, and sometimes the Dog is an icebreaker.
Each of us has numerous stories of the amazing responses our dogs elicit. One example is Reba, Cathie Sprysa’s dog, now retired. Reba had a wonderful effect on a chap who hadn’t spoken for 15 years. But he would and did speak to Reba! In words and sentences that made sense. Staff didn’t believe reports until they heard and saw it for themselves. Reba had this effect not once, but on more than one occasion and with more than one person. Who can explain these mysteries?
We serve Queensway Carleton Hospital, the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre, the many sites of the Ottawa Hospital, CHEO, chronic care hospitals and long term care facilities. In the long term care facilities our teams visit the forgotten ones in special approach or locked units. We continue to add new facilities, increasing the number of teams and expanding geographically, in areas stretching past Ottawa to Renfrew, Almonte and Carleton Place and Aylmer.
Working with children with reading difficulties is a separate OTD initiative. In 2004 we learned about the R.E.A.D.® program from one of our members, Chantel Hutter (Moore). This program (initially developed in Utah by the then Delta Society Pet Partner group: Intermountain Therapy Dogs - now an independent entity), focuses on giving children a non judgmental reading partner who gives them their full loving attention - a therapy dog. Reading is magically turned from glum to fun. Instead of reading being an activity in which no student wants to participate, it becomes a welcome learning experience. Children benefit not only by learning to love to read, they often develop increased self esteem which reflects in other areas of the school environment. The R.E.A.D. students are eager to share stories of their special four legged friends with classmates, making reading a fun and positive experience for them.
The number of R.E.A.D. teams increases annually - touching many young lives. We have a pre-condition of a minimum of one year of prior active OTD therapy dog service before teams are eligible to apply for the R.E.A.D. program. Here is a story which encapsulates the power of the R.E.A.D. program on struggling readers.
Joey didn’t like to read. His mother tried everything to get him interested in books, but nothing seemed to work. When Joey first started reading to Chelsea, a flame was lit and his love for reading took off. He became so motivated to read that when he received money for his birthday, he asked his Mom if he could buy a book with it, and they did. We could fill up many pages with stories of how these special patient dogs have touched young lives.
It can be said that we visit the most frail and vulnerable in our society and because of this we absolutely must be attendant to safety issues at every turn. We need 6 eyes, two on the dog, two on our clients and two in the back of our heads on for everything else. We are always in evolution, always learning.
To be a therapy dog team with Ottawa Therapy Dogs means becoming educated about infection control measures and respecting confidentiality It means attending OTD Orientation to learn proper conduct required by handler and dog to ensure safety for all at every facility visited. We refer to this as the North End of the Leash because we believe the handler as well as the dog must be involved in education, training and evaluation.
Our evaluators are very experienced therapy dog handlers and highly knowledgeable dog obedience trainers. They know the requirements of our therapy dogs, where they would be best suited to visit and what they may encounter from their own experiences in therapy dog volunteer work. Our teams then enter our mentoring program, to learn from watching others. Experienced Mentors assist on initial visits to help new teams get underway, making sure that handler and dog feel confident in the skills they have developed through training and education. OTD knows that it takes time, effort and communication to ensure the success of sound teams offering safe visits in a quality program with high standards.
Our bottom line is the delivery of safe, sound therapy dog programs to those who benefit from this approach to the human-animal bond.
We are enriched by a diverse skill set among our members, many of whom lend their expertise and numerous volunteer hours to the development and management of OTD. These include, though are not limited to our: OTD Registrar, Facilities Coordinator, Evaluators, Committee and Board Members, and Web Designer. Some bring extensive knowledge of the dog world to us and many are themselves health care professionals. As in many volunteer agencies there are members involved with direct service and those who help through indirect service. Ottawa Therapy Dogs could not continue to grow and serve were it not for the help of Associate Members, the non-handler member volunteers.
The final tribute belongs to those who continue to enrich the lives of those served by our patients, our beloved Ottawa Therapy Dogs. They are our family pets. We are their community volunteers.