East Central Therapy Dogs Gearing Back Up

Photo Karen Graham.
Residents of Centennial Place will be happy to see Bear, a 153-pound white Pyrenees, return for a visit. His owner, Mike, will be welcome, too.

For over 25 years, East Central Therapy Dog Volunteers and their dogs have been visiting hospital wards, long term care homes and VON Day Centres in Peterborough, Lakefield and Millbrook.

They also visit schools including local high schools, Trent University and Fleming College to help students de-stress at exam time.  The organization is a not-for-profit that is completely self-supporting through its annual calendar sales, which fund the purchase of uniforms and leashes for the volunteers and provide the required insurance coverage for their clients.

After an extended hiatus due to the pandemic, last month, the organization began re-testing the dogs on their roster at the Millbrook Legion, as some of the organizations they serve are beginning to welcome them back.  Re-testing is required any time a dog has not provided service for six months or more.  The concern is that during the break, the dogs may have lost interest in the task, they may have become too old or have experienced a change in personality. Given the vulnerable nature of the audiences these dogs serve, the Therapy Dog organizations take no chances.

Photo Karen Graham.
Therapy dog test in progress.

At the moment, East Central Therapy dogs are re-testing 35 dogs who have worked in the past, and have another 35 candidates who have expressed interest in learning more about the service before deciding to have their canine companions examined to determine their suitability for the work.

There is no training for the therapy dogs, nor are there preferred breeds or other physical traits that screen dog selection.  At the Legion’s retesting event last month dogs ranged in size from fifteen to 153 pounds.  Whether the dogs are Chihuahuas, Great White Pyrenees, Poodles, Retrievers, Dachshunds or mutts, the main requirement is the right temperament.  This is what the testing determines.

Therapy dogs must be calm, obedient and confident in a crowded, institutional setting.  The testing puts the dogs through a temperament evaluation that simulates situations they might face on the job such as sudden loud noises, wheelchairs and white coats!   The test includes twelve components to determine the dogs’ suitability based on their reactions.  Can they be distracted by another dog?  Will they stay close to their owners even in a milling crowd?  Can they handle loud instructions from a stranger?

Therapy dogs provide the gift of unconditional love to their clients.  The simple act of petting a dog has been proven to release an automatic relaxation response, lowering blood pressure.  They can reduce loneliness, stress and anxiety by providing an external focus of attention.  In addition to alleviating signs of depression, they can reduce agitation in dementia patients and provide welcome distraction from institutional settings.  In short, they can improve the quality of life for their clients while their handlers enjoy the satisfaction of making a difference in their community. On the other hand, Therapy dog visits usually involve stroking the pet and receiving the occasional lick, which is why hospitals and some long term care homes are not ready to bring the animals back to their facilities.

People volunteers must be at least 19 years of age and commit to one visit per week at an assigned location.  The continuity of this commitment builds friendships between the volunteers and the clients, which makes the experience even more rewarding for all involved. Handlers attend an orientation session and accompany an experienced volunteer before heading out on their own.

If you think you may be interested in joining this group, visit their website at www.ectd.ca or contact Anne Corke, Coordinator, East Central Therapy Dogs at amcorke@gmail.com.  The organization is always looking for new recruits!  KG

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