‘It was amazing’: Therapy dogs bringing light in new ways throughout pandemic

A visit from a furry friend can make a big — and comforting — difference for someone in a stressful or uncomfortable situation in a hospital, school, health-care facility or similar setting.

Like many activities, therapy dog visits like these have been affected by the pandemic. When the provincial vaccine rollout plan began, however, the idea was raised that therapy dogs could assist those being vaccinated.

With that suggestion, St. John Ambulance Council for Saskatchewan stepped up. The organization operates a therapy dog program that has benefited Saskatchewan residents.

The Saskatchewan Health Authority was receptive to the idea and the visits were launched in Regina and Saskatoon.

Volunteer contributions

Regina’s Kathy Calvin volunteered as part of the project. Her Labrador retriever, Magic, is a certified therapy dog.

“It was amazing. It was so gratifying to be able to give back in some capacity to this huge pandemic we've all been going through, but specifically to help the frontline workers in a small way,” said Calvin. “I can see how hard they've been working and none of us have ever gone through this. So to be able to provide a little bit of relief was huge for me personally.”

Seeing the reactions Magic generated was a neat experience for Calvin.

“To know our dog was helping people through a pandemic, something we've never thought we'd ever live through or hear of —  it was extremely humbling,” said Calvin. “For me personally, it would be one thing to look forward to — having a virtual visit with a dog. That might have helped me get through at least that part of the day.”

Virtual visits

“It’s very, very pleasing to see and to witness,” said Michael Brenholen, Director of Operations for St. John Ambulance Council for Saskatchewan.

The therapy dog vaccine program is just one initiative St. John Ambulance has been a part of throughout the pandemic.

When COVID-19 initially hit in March 2020, community events were suspended and medical first responders and volunteers, who would traditionally bring out therapy dogs, were unable to do so.

That’s when they developed a virtual therapy dog website that allowed visits to continue.

“They didn’t want to leave people in a lurch who had depended upon their regular therapy dog visit to keep their stress levels down — especially in a pandemic time,” said Brenholen, who has been with St. John Ambulance for over 15 years. “It was quite a neat program. A lot of creativity went into it and kudos to that Saskatoon team that put it all together.”

The success of the project means it will continue and those who can’t make it to an in-person visit, including those in rural Saskatchewan, can still benefit from therapy dog visits.

Opportunities such as these allow Brenholen to do what he enjoys most in his role — meet people.

“Hearing the stories to the impact that they're able to make, and then knowing that, in my role, I've been able to enable those occurrences to happen. Setting up their ability to actually go into seniors homes, schools and hospitals to do the visits that do bring that joy to the people that are resident there.”

St. John Ambulance Council for Saskatchewan is one of more than 12,000 sport, culture and recreation organizations supported by Sask Lotteries.

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