Therapy dogs minister in a new field

By Cecilia Nasmith

Everyone knows the blessings of a therapy-dog visit to a seniors' home, hospital, school and even crisis settings such as a natural disaster.

Less well known is the fact that two teams from the Northumberland St. John Ambulance therapy-dog program have been bringing these special benefits to participants in a mental-health program at the Warkworth Institution.

The Northumberland St. John Ambulance branch was contacted in February 2018 by an occupational therapist at the medium-security Correctional Services Canada facility. Nicholas Lefebvre was creating a program that would use this therapeutic tool based on research he had seen about what dog therapy can do for the individual. Two local therapy-dog teams jumped on board right away when the call went out from branch administrator Karen Walker.

“I put up my hand right then for prison visits,” recalled Jane Watanabe of Port Hope, who was visiting a retirement home at the time with her golden doodle Pogo.

Fred and Joan Montpetit of Brighton, who were visiting Applefest Lodge with their chihuahua Mollie, also volunteered immediately.

Though it sounds like an unusual assignment, Walker's successor Amy Turcotte said, it is still – like all other St. John Ambulance therapy dog assignments – a matter of bringing comfort to vulnerable people.

Jane said that she and Pogo were warmly welcomed at each visit to the retirement residence, but sometimes found that the residents seemed almost equally interested in visiting with her as they were in enjoying Pogo.

At Warkworth, there's no question that Mollie and Pogo are the centre of attention during visits. There's even a tribute to both teams on a concrete-block wall – a mural painted by a resident who loved art.

When Fred thanked him, he heard that the young man was getting out in August.

“I said, 'To tell you the truth, I am glad you are still here – you wouldn't have got the picture done.”

Both teams alternate visits as part of the voluntary program, bringing in Mollie and Pogo for a 10-minute visit with each participant (if one or two don't show up, that just means a longer visit for the others).

The mechanics of each visit are accomplished in such a way as to accommodate the important prescribed routines of prison life, but they've always found the staffers welcoming and helpful.

And the delight the residents take in their four-legged visitors, they agree, is an absolute joy.

Many of them have had dogs previously, and relive wonderful memories during these visits.

Jane had a conversation with a man who had not had the opportunity to pet a dog for almost three decades. “Do you know what it feels like to touch a dog after 27 years?” he asked her.

Both teams enjoy watching the reaction of another portly inmate whose visits consist of lying supine on a yoga mat and letting the dogs lick his face – something he has found to be sublimely calming as he struggles with anxiety.

Joan said many residents who have a release coming up declare their intention to get a dog of their own.

The art of conversation with the residents is typically a matter of letting them take the lead.

“If they want to talk about sports, we talk about sports. If they want to talk about something else,” Fred said.

“Sometimes the guy just wants his 10 minutes with the dog – he doesn't want to talk. Sometimes they give us hugs. There's always a lot of communication and friendship.

“We treat them with respect, like we want to be treated with respect.”

He and Joan shared some of the jokes they had been told, all of which were surprisingly clean.

Fred said they are well aware each man is there for a reason, but he has no doubt of the genuine warmth and friendship so many have displayed.

“We don't ask them what they are in for,” Jane said.

“Occasionally, they might say when they are getting out or, if it comes up, I might say, 'Have you been here long?'”

One man volunteered his life story of being raised by crack-addicted parents, becoming addicted himself, then committing murder by the age of 18.

“He was the most incredibly wonderful, thoughtful, intelligent person,” she stated.

“He would be dead if he'd been on the streets.”

When appropriate, the Montpetits have given some of the participants photos of Mollie. Joan was told by one man that, when he gets out of bed feeling depressed, looking at Mollie's picture seems to make things better.

Amy recounted the story of a man whose release came through, but he delayed his departure to enjoy one last visit with Mollie.

“I can't tell you how much I have seen a difference in some individuals,” Lefebvre said.

“Some individuals I have gotten feedback from parole officers on acknowledge, since these individuals started this program, their personality, attitude, behaviour completely turned around.

“I think it means something to everyone who participates in it, but there are certain individuals it means so much more to. They haven't had that kind of nonjudgmental physical contact and interaction with that kind of affection in years. For those individuals, it tends to mean a lot.”

Warkworth Institution does have cats living in the facility, and Lefebvre has found certain of his clients who were previously closed off have changed because of the dog therapy. Now they have begun opening up their affection to these animals as well. By interacting with the cats, they are getting some of these benefits even when the dogs are not present.

The mural is the work of two men, he said. They painted it as a result of being asked what mental health means to them. Both were part of the dog therapy program, Lefebvre said, and this is one of the most important things they have taken away from it.

Once in a while, a letter of thanks makes its way to the therapy dog teams – which is no small thing. A letter written by a resident is routinely intercepted and read at several stops along the way as a security measure before it reaches the recipient. So each one means all the more.

Joan recalls a beautiful note with a picture of an eagle on it.

“He said that's because, when we leave, he feels like he is flying high.”

“You build up a trust – and an attachment, actually – to some of these people,” Jane said.

“It has been a privilege to do this,” she stated.

“A blessing,” Fred agreed.