Furry volunteers lift spirits

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With her long, floppy ears and soft brown fur, Abby is not your typical volunteer.  At just eight years of age, she has been a dedicated volunteer at Windsor Regional Hospital for the last five years as part of the dog visitation program. Founded in 2004, the program now has 15 dogs who regularly visit patients at the hospital’s two campuses.

Abby, an English springer spaniel, visits the Adult Day Program at the Western Campus every Tuesday with her owner Gail Pirie. Together, this team interact with the program participants for a couple of hours. Pirie says the impact of the visit is instant and obvious.

“Being around dogs makes everyone smile. Many of the participants in the program are no longer able to have their own dogs so it’s emotional therapy for them. When they pet Abby, they are also getting physical therapy by hand manipulation.”

The dog visitation program at the hospital is coordinated through a partnership with Volunteer Services and St. John Ambulance’s Pet Visitation Program. Maggie Manson is the coordinator of the St. John Ambulance Program.

There are currently 85 members with dogs doing visits to various locations throughout Windsor and Essex County. The dogs that participate are owned by these individuals. Each team goes through a rigorous application process before being allowed to participate in the program. The dogs must be at least one year of age, and be well-behaved. An application is completed which is then followed by a meeting with personnel from St. John Ambulance. Together the dog and their owner are evaluated as a team. Once they pass these steps, they go on four visits to a site with a coordinator from St. John’s.  Following this, they begin their visits. After the tenth visit, the coordinator returns with the handler for a follow-up evaluation of the owner and the dog to ensure they are happy with the team.

“The dog visitation program has been incredibly popular since it began. Patients and families look forward to visits from these furry friends.  It is an instantly rewarding experience for the patient that is very positive. It really helps brighten their day and briefly take their minds off of their illness,” says Renee Hopes, Volunteer Supervisor at Windsor Regional Hospital.

Many requests are received from patients and families for visits. On average, each team does one visit to the hospital per week. Each team generally visits different departments so that every area can take advantage of the program. Upon entering the hospital, the team will head to their scheduled area. Most departments in the hospital allow visits and only a few of the dogs who have passed additional tests are able to visit children in the paediatric unit. However, they go to a generalized area where the children can come to them for the visit.

Manson says they are overwhelmed by the number of requests they receive for visits.  “Immediately upon entering a hospital, the dogs are greeted with smiles and enthusiasm. They instantly bring a smile to people’s faces.”

In addition to making patients and families smile, these four-legged friends offer tremendous health benefits. For example, it has been proven that a patient’s blood pressure will go down while petting a dog. These animals help patients cope with loneliness, isolation, anxiety and other psychological problems.

“These dogs bring comfort and joy to those who are sick. Patients reap the therapeutic benefits of unconditional love of a four-legged friend.” says Manson.

However, it is not just the patients who benefit from the program. The other part are the owners who also look forward to the regular visits and the ability to bring some joy and comfort to those in the hospital.

The dogs are among the 400 official volunteers at Windsor Regional Hospital, complete with their own identification badges. They are also recognizable by their official uniform of a St. John Ambulance golf shirt.

The program continues to grow and evolve. In 2010, the teams visited 544 facilities throughout Windsor and Essex County and contributed 7,490 volunteer hours making this one of the largest dog visitation programs in Ontario. Pitie says they are always looking for new members.

“We typically do two evaluations for dog owners wanting to participate in the program, one in the fall and one in the spring. We already have nine people who have applied to be tested now.”

Although Windsor Regional Hospital has a well established program, there is still room for expansion. “Withdrawal Management/Addictions and Residential Rehabilitation Programs are hoping to be matched with a dog soon.” says Hope.