Pet therapy volunteers connect with patients

Volunteers play an integral role in patient care and customer service at St. Joseph’s Health Centre, with 250 volunteers from the community dedicating their time in giving back.

Volunteers come from all walks of life, including a couple of special volunteers who walk on four legs. Elska and Buddy, our two therapy dogs in the Volunteer Pet Therapy Program, tour the halls of the Health Centre visiting patients in various departments.

“It’s really gratifying to walk into a room and see a patient who is not really responding, (and then) when I come in with Elska – a smile lights up their face,” says her owner, Barbara Haire. “It’s really great to see the impact that she has on them.”

Whether she’s wagging her tail while getting petted by a patient, or sashaying down the hallway like a supermodel, Elska is hard to miss in the halls of St. Joe’s.

Barbara first had the idea to make the almost three-year-old Shetland sheepdog a therapy dog after seeing her mom’s experience with a canine companion. Her mother suffered from Alzheimer’s, and her own Sheltie was amazing at calming her down.

“When I got (Elska), she seemed to have a personality – she just loves to greet people,” says Barbara. “She loves to say ‘hi’ to everybody that she meets.”

She’s also a loving dog, as her name suggests. “Elska” actually means “love” in the Icelandic language. “My mother’s family was Icelandic, and it was a word that I knew as a little kid and it seemed to apply to her so perfectly,” says Barbara.

Being a therapy dog at St. Joe’s has given Elska the chance to get petted even more than usual – and the experience has been a rewarding one for Barbara, too. “I just believe that it’s very important to give back to the communities we live in,” she says.

Susan Bertoldi, Manager of Volunteer Services at St. Joe’s adds that, “Elska is a dog with great intuition and is so people-focused, it’s incredible.” With a growing interest in a pet therapy program from patients, families and staff, Elska is the first dog we have welcomed to our growing team. This fall, St. Joe’s also welcomed Buddy, a Portuguese water dog and her owner, volunteer Carolina Lorenz to the program.

“Research has shown that pet therapy helps to lower blood pressure and ease anxiety for patients, and brings them a sense of calmness,” says Bertoldi. The program is one way our organization is helping to improve our patients’ experience while they are in our hospital, she adds.

“It’s a very generous thing that our volunteers do, to share their pet in this way. They are giving their time as well as sharing the companionship of their animal and that’s a huge gift to share,” says Bertoldi.

Our volunteer programs are support resources for our visitors and patients to help them navigate the through the hospital, locate a loved one that is here for care, or escorting people to and from appointments.

“We are so fortunate to have so many volunteers, who are committed to St. Joe’s and our Mission and Values, who want to participate in their community and see St. Joe’s as that place where they can give back,” says Bertoldi.

Earlier this year, our video featuring Elska received international attention, when St. Joe’s was honoured with an Award of Distinction in the 2013 Videographer Awards, a United States-based competition that had 1,500 applicants.

To watch the video, visit our St. Joe’s YouTube channel at