Therapy dogs are changing people's lives, one tail wag at a time

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The St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog program harnesses the power of a dog’s unconditional love to help heal those who need it most.

The St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program reaches out to thousands of people on a daily basis across Canada, bringing companionship—through their four-legged friends—to members of the community who are sick, lonely, reside in long-term care residences, and more.

"The program is really to provide comfort to people in long term care, hospitals, schools, universities… and really to allow people to interact with therapy dogs to benefit their overall wellbeing," explained Bob Darlington, York Region Coordinator with St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program.

St. John Ambulance’s Therapy Dog Program takes a volunteer and their dog into community settings on a weekly basis.

Jordyn Read/TWN: 8-year-old Addison, Bernese Mountain Dog (Jordyn Read/TWN)

8-year-old Addison, Bernese Mountain Dog. (The Weather Network)

Volunteer Nancy Chomyszyn, a dedicated dog handler for over a decade, recently visited patients in the hospital alongside her 5-year-old dog, Maggie. The experience of connecting a person with her dog has been life-changing for Chomyszyn.

"You can see it in their smiles," she said. "To have that kind of impact on someone's life, it’s priceless."

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In late May, Chomyszyn and Maggie, along with fellow handler Julie Kramer and her dog, Addison, visited Chartwell Aurora Long Term Care Residence to bring comfort and joy to residents.

Jordyn Read/TWN: Residents at Chartwell Aurora Long Term Care (Jordyn Read/TWN)

Residents at Chartwell Aurora Long Term Care. (The Weather Network)

Through petting, affection, and regular visitation, many people benefit both physically and emotionally from the unconditional love of a dog.

"[Dogs] don’t judge; they accept everybody—in a wheelchair, on a walker, on crutches... When you see it on their faces like today that they are so happy just to have five minutes [with the dogs], it’s just love," said Kramer.

"Dogs in a lot of cases have a sense, say in a nursing home, they have a sense that 'this person really needs me today,' and they gravitate towards that person," explained Chomyszyn.

The dogs not only encourage a sense of community among residents, but they often act as a bridge between the resident and the handler.

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"People get a chance to spend time with the dog, but with the handlers as well," added Darlington. "Some individuals don't have family members that can come by regularly, and some may not have a family at all. So what happens is that the therapy dog handler actually becomes a member of their extended family."

"As we were leaving [Chartwell Aurora Long Term Care Residence], one of the residents grabbed my hand and gave me a hug. "said Chomyszyn. "My eyes started to well up. It’s rewarding for us as handlers to have that impact on somebody, and it lasts for a very long time," said Chomyszyn.

Volunteers are asked to dedicate one hour a week for once-a-week visitations, and their loyal companions are also subjected to evaluations to test their temperament and ability to follow their handler’s lead.

The therapy dogs that are a part of the program are often family dogs, trained by the handlers themselves, which includes basic obedience training and good socialization.

The program continues to grow, boasting more than 3,500 volunteer dog teams providing over 275,000 hours of their time, according to the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog program.

Jordyn Read: Julie Kramer, Nancy Chomyszyn, and Bob Darlington

Julie Kramer, Nancy Chomyszyn, and Bob Darlington. (The Weather Network)

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"Every branch across the country is looking for more teams because there is more and more demand every day for the therapy dog program," explained Darlington. 

Therapy dog services are provided in a wide range of community settings, such as:

  • Hospitals

  • Senior residences and care facilities

  • Schools, universities, and colleges

  • Community centres and libraries

If you are interested in potentially becoming a volunteer with the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog program, click here.