Demand is increasing for volunteers for St. John Ambulance’s therapy dogs, which are having a positive effect across the Cariboo.
Karen Wright, facilitator for the South Cariboo region, said they currently have three teams in 100 Mile House and seven teams in Williams Lake and are looking for more in the 100 Mile areas.
The program involves volunteers and their dogs going into hospitals, seniors’ residences and nursing homes on a weekly basis, to provide joy and comfort to residents - both emotionally and physically - “through petting, affection, and regular visitation.”
Wright said she is always amazed at how people react to dogs. She visits Williams Lake once a week, dropping by Cariboo House, a long-term care facility, on Tuesdays and Deni House on Wednesdays.
“You walk in and they look up at you and they’re not smiling,” she said. “Then they look down and see the dog and you see the grin. They’re so happy.”
They also visit 150 Mile Elementary school on Tuesdays and the Williams Lake library on Wednesdays.
She alternates the dogs between days so neither of them gets too tired, she said.
Patricia Moore, who lives in Williams Lake, said she decided to sign up her yellow lab Emma in the program after stopping by a Red Cross station in Ashcroft back in 2017. There were some therapy dogs on hand at the time. Emma ”was just so incredibly calm” during the visit, she said, that one of the workers gave her a tag that said “volunteer.” Emma got her certification as a therapy dog last April.
“She’s so into this and in the children (at Mountview Elementary) we are seeing. They love her,” said Moore. “There’s a fellow that we go see and he just lights up every time he sees her.”
There are a few guidelines required for therapy dogs, which must be at least two years old and have an up-to-date vaccination record. Dogs who eat a raw food diet are excluded due to the possibility of giving a client salmonella, Wright said. Although this does not happen often, the possibility exists.
Any breed is acceptable, as long as the dog passes the evaluation process. However, most dogs tend to be smaller as it is difficult to put a big dog up on a bed or in someone’s lap.
Prior to the dogs being evaluated, handlers go through orientation and pay a $25 evaluation fee. Those who make it into the program are given their own trading card, which the seniors collect and display on the wall.
Moore noted many of the people they visit had pets when they were growing up and love to tell stories about them during the visits.
Colleen Hodgson’s border collie Tuck loves to put his head in people’s lap so he can be petted. He was working on their sheep ranch in Big Creek about 100 kilometres west of Williams Lake but wasn’t as dedicated to the job. After seeing how good Tuck was when he spent time with her aging parents, she decided to register him as a therapy dog.
Tuck got his certification last year.
“He just demands to be petted all the time,” Hodgson said.
The handlers say anyone who wants to volunteer in the program should like people, noting the dogs depend on their owners to look out for their well-being. “They could probably do it on their own and they’d be just tickled pink that he or she showed up,” Hodgson said.
St. John’s Ambulance has insurance coverage for the handler but not the dogs as they are considered personal possessions. Wright said owners can get their own insurance coverage for their dogs if they wish.
For more information, visit https://www.sja.ca/en/community-services/therapy-dog-program.