A Brief History of Ottawa Therapy Dogs
In 1999, therapy dog founder Marilyn Benoit became a member of Therapy Dogs International (TDI), an organization established in 1976 in New Jersey, USA. Incorporating formal training and assessment, TDI set a high standard for therapy dog volunteers that met Marilyn’s vision for a Canadian chapter. In January 2000, Marilyn and other volunteers formed the first Canadian chapter of TDI, "Ottawa Therapy Dogs (OTD)."
That year OTD started out with seven members serving several Ottawa facilities. We aimed to assist those who wished to become therapy dog volunteers, and to meet the needs of facilities inviting this program into their community. We also provided ongoing in-service education for our members about all aspects of volunteer work related to the safe delivery of high quality therapy dog programs.
In 2002, one of our members became a certified TDI evaluator and we began to increase our 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. Through the organization and commitment of our volunteers, we 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.
In 2004, we learned about the Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.)® program from one of our members. Affiliated with Intermountain Therapy Animals, this program focuses on providing children with a non-judgmental reading partner who gives them their full, loving attention—a therapy dog. Children benefit not only by learning to love to read, but also through increased self-esteem that reflects in other areas of the school environment. The number of OTD R.E.A.D. teams volunteering in elementary schools and public libraries continues to increase annually, touching many young lives.
In 2006, OTD participated in a research project through the University of Guelph to assess the potential of zoonosis—the transfer of microbial pathogens between therapy dogs and patients—at Ontario Hospitals. The study demonstrated that OTD teams and their cleanliness protocols were effective in preventing microbial introduction and transfer in facilities. This study has helped allay some of the concerns about the presence of dogs in hospital settings.
Today, many of our members provide Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) and Animal Assisted Activity (AAA), working with health care teams to help meet goals set by the health care professional and the patient. Our members have worked in the areas of stroke rehabilitation, brain injuries, and regaining mobility and strength. We also work with recreation therapists and social workers in the areas of end of life care and behaviour modification for patients who may feel depressed, angry, aggressive, or socially isolated. Often these patients respond to the dog's presence when other interventions do not work.
Some of our teams work with 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, or simply hugging and petting the dog. Working with a dog can be less threatening than with another person, and the clients learn valuable life skills they can apply in human interactions.
Our teams also serve the 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. We continue to add new facilities, increasing the number of teams and expanding geographically to stretch past Ottawa to Gatineau, Renfrew, Almonte, Carleton Place, and Aylmer. In 2008, OTD hired a part-time administration coordinator.
Since our inception, 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 our hard work and diligence, we have earned a respected place in the Ottawa-Gatineau area for our therapy dog programs.