After a long pandemic-related break, the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre is welcoming back six very special – not to mention, furry – volunteers from Ottawa Therapy Dogs (OTD).
Lorraine Douglas, OTD operations manager, says although they’ve had teams at The Royal for many years preceding the pandemic, they’ve never had this many dogs at the Ottawa campus at one time. This, despite a long waitlist for OTD services and a serious shortage of volunteers – both human and canine.
OTD volunteers work with their own dogs in a variety of both educational and health care settings that also includes The Ottawa Hospital, Queensway-Carleton Hospital, Montfort, and CHEO.
At The Royal, the therapy dogs, along with their human volunteers, spend 60 to 90-minutes every week in different areas of the organization including geriatrics, Royal Ottawa Place (ROP) long-term care, and in the Youth Psychiatry Program.
During a session, a therapy dog helps to calm the clients and creates an environment for constructive conversations amongst the clients, therapists and handler.While many people enjoy spending time with canine companions and report happy feelings as they do so, there’s a growing body of research that points to tangible, therapeutic benefits of spending time with a dog.
“In addition to the vast amount of anecdotal evidence of the benefits of therapy dog visits, there is now a great deal of research being conducted in the field of Animal Assisted Interventions, or A.A.I. The evidence shows that the presence of a dog increases the level of oxytocin in the body and that oxytocin can have a profound positive effect on the body and mind. In turn, that then helps to reduce cortisol levels. This aids trauma recovery, eases anxiety and reduces stress,” says Douglas.
“During a session, a therapy dog helps to calm the clients and creates an environment for constructive conversations amongst the clients, therapists and handler.
Douglas once told a group of young clients how Obi, a golden retriever, sometimes deals with the stress of a new situation by giving a great big shake as if he was shaking water off his back. She referred to this action as a “big reset button.” What ensued, with the support of a clinician, was a discussion about how it can also be helpful for people to find ways to “reset” before moving on to the next big thing in their day.
Douglas notes the arrival of the dogs is always eagerly anticipated, an event that often gets inpatients socializing and out of their rooms. She believes the consistency of visits is also a benefit. She describes one young inpatient who was reluctant to visit with Obi at first, preferring to observe from a distance. After a time, their first step was a quick pat on the head but within a few weeks they became comfortable enough to give him a big hug.
“The dog was something familiar, something non-threatening, something that enabled them to come out of her shell. It was just so wonderful to see,” describes Douglas. “It's really hard to put into words, the impact of these interactions. I just sit there in awe – watching my dog communicating with people on their level. It's amazing.”
Dale Patterson, a recreation therapist in the Substance Use and Concurrent Disorders Program (SUCD) at The Royal, has seen the benefits of therapy dogs firsthand. She asked some of her clients what they enjoy most about visits with a therapy dog and here’s what some of them said:
- Physical contact – It feels good to pet a dog. Touch and physical contact with other living beings is one of our most basic needs and right now, especially during the pandemic with social and physical distancing in place, it can be harder to come by.
- It’s a judgment-free zone – The dogs are happy to see them, no matter what. “The tail is wagging and the butt is wagging – it is such a welcoming feeling,” says Patterson. “It feels good to hang out with someone who's not judging you on your past or your problems.”
- The dogs remind them of happy times with their own pets and often prompts people to open up. “It's a really healthy and safe way for clients to express their affection,” says Patterson. For Patterson, who is often looking to find common ground with her clients, the animal interaction brings about a positive, shared experience they can talk about and build upon.
For more information about Ottawa Therapy Dogs, go to ottawatherapydogs.ca.