Therapy dogs continue to bring care and comfort

The St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program is always in need of volunteers

Whether it’s visiting lonely seniors or offering support during times of crisis, the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program has been bringing joy and comfort for more than 20 years.

A recent article in The Morning Star contained incorrect information about the program, which is still going strong in the North Okanagan and throughout British Columbia.

Jill Wurflinger is Director of Community Services for St. John Ambulance, B.C. and Yukon, and she said there are currently 17 volunteers with the program in Vernon, visiting seniors’ residences, Vernon Jubilee Hospital and local classrooms during the school year.

“We are fully committed to the therapy dog program and expanding it across the province,” said Wurflinger, on the phone from Vancouver. “We are going through a restructuring in community services, to increase capacity to serve our communities, and to do more. We have implemented an online volunteer database system to the best practice for volunteer engagement. It’s a system that many volunteers were already part of, and is one used by many charities and many hospitals.

“This is how you work as a charity in the 21st century: it’s the responsible use of people’s time and energy as well as data, and as we go forward it will allow us to communicate more often, more clearly and more thoroughly with our volunteers. We’re doing a lot to improve awareness of this and other programs, and it was a shock for many involved to see misinformation that disrespects the volunteers still visiting facilities printed on the front page.”

There is a high rate of volunteerism among the senior population, and Wurflinger said there is a misconception that using this new system is beyond their capability.

“The seniors are actually one of the highest adoption of technology groups in terms of demographics for using the internet and computers,” she said. “So we’re restructuring and improving our systems to expand and help more communities and including the therapy dog program — our goal is to improve and update communications, to reach more volunteers with more information and give them the ability to communicate with each other, rather than going through just one person.”

Wurflinger added that volunteers have been working overtime this week to help people affected by the B.C. wildfires, with Therapy Dog teams visiting the Kamloops Emergency Support Services Reception Centre at Thompson Rivers University.

“Our Therapy Dog people have been at the evacuation centre in Kamloops,” she said. “We have our medical first responders in the community, and so this has been a difficult time and the misinformation about the program has been hurtful to the many dedicated handlers, to their efforts and the great work done by the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program volunteers.”

Wurflinger said volunteers are always needed for the program, with training provided. Volunteers must be at least 18 years old, dogs must be at least two years of age, with up-to-date vaccinations.

“There is an application process, and an evaluation with your dog — these handlers and their dogs are very highly trained,” she said.

Sponsored by Subaru Canada, the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program brings joy and comfort to the sick, lonely and those who need a friendly visit.

In 2015, 3,354 therapy dog program volunteers and dog teams assisted more than 120,000 clients across Canada. Therapy dog teams gave more than 230,000 hours of their time visiting hospitals, retirement residences, care facilities, schools and universities. The program started in June, 1992 as a pilot program in Peterborough, Ont. and today more than 3,300 therapy dog teams reach thousands annually.

The program provides an opportunity for people to talk with the volunteer and the dog, touch, pet and cuddle the dog, receive unconditional love from the dog, carry-out or practice an activity in the presence of the dog.

The program offers many benefits, including greater social engagement with individuals/residents talking more, participating more in activities, and smiling more, stress relief and distraction from pain, comfort and calming, improved self-confidence and esteem.

The program varies across Canada based on community need and the availability of volunteers. Therapy dogs routinely offer comfort and companionship in senior residences and care facilities. In hospitals, they may be providing relief and distraction for patients awaiting cancer treatments. There are special programs such as “Paws 4 Stories” which help young children learn to read, and in some communities therapy dogs work with youth at risk and children with special needs. University campus visits are very popular, helping to relieve stress during exam periods. In special cases, therapy dogs can be found working with police and fire departments, social workers and psychologists during times of crisis.

For more information on volunteering with the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog program, or for an application form, please email volunteer@bc.sja.ca

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