Sometimes, there is no substitute for the unconditional love of a pet, even if that pet is bringing love, comfort and compassion to a stranger.
A new organization in Cranbrook is using the remarkable social skills of dogs to provide comfort to people with emotional needs. A chapter of Therapeutic Paws of Canada (TPOC) is up and running in Cranbrook — and the human-canine relationship is reaching a new level.
“We’re just one of two teams in British Columbia,” said Mike LeClair, founder of the Cranbrook Chapter of TPOC, and co-team leader along with Stephanie Kress. “The other one is in Gibson’s.”
Therapeutic Paws of Canada is a non-profit organization of volunteers providing animal resources for human needs — whether these be physical, mental, educational, motivational, or social. Volunteers and their dogs make visits to hospitals, seniors’ facilities, schools, and more, where the animals bring their remarkable empathy to bear to provide comfort and help ease distress.
“With our dogs we provide comfort — therapeutic visits to anyone in the community,” LeClair said. “The use of our program really is endless. There is no demographic. It benefits all citizens in the community from children through to seniors.”
TPOC’s slogan is “Paws With Love To Share.”
While the benefits of an animal-human relationship is as familiar as that 10,000-year-old relationship, the actual therapeutic usage as practiced by TPOC — celebrated their 15th anniversary this year — is a relatively recent innovation in that relationship.
There already are multiple organizations using comfort dogs — St. John’s Ambulance being the biggest. Therapeutic Paws of Canada is the second biggest national therapy dog program.
Leclair stressed that therapy dogs are people’s pets, and there is a significant difference between a therapy dog and a service dog.
“Service dogs have many, many hours of training, and that kind of money put into them, for specialized work, and they’re usually geared towards one individual, whether it’s PTSD or an epileptic sensing dog — those sorts of things,” LeClair said. “Service dogs are allowed to go wherever their handlers go, into restaurants, grocery stores, among the general public. Therapy dogs don’t command that same [license]. What’s involved in being a therapy dog — or having a therapy dog —comes down to temperament.”
When the local team does evaluations on the dogs to see if they’ll fit the program, they follow a guideline of temperament testing set out by Therapeutic Paws of Canada. The dogs go through multiple tests of temperament.
“It’s not so much obedience — obedience certainly helps — but we’re looking for very well behaved, calm dogs,” LeClair said. “A lot of the dogs have a very good sense.”
LeClair said that a calm, sensitive dog is able to pick up on people’s feelings. It may be someone dying in palliative care, or lonesome in a seniors’home, or a scared youngster in the children’s hospital, or even on the witness stand in court. Dogs sense theses emotional needs, and will gravitate towards them with concern and compassion.
LeClair spoke how one of the founders of TPOC, Judy Sauve, brought her therapy dog to a seniors facility, “the therapy dog would actually sit in front of the door and not move. The dog can sense the end is basically near for the person. [Sauve] has seen it with her own eyes, and it’s absolutely amazing.”
LeClair got inspired about launching the program in Cranbrook after watching a CNN piece on the aftermath of a school shooting in the U.S. Therapy dogs were brought into the community.
“These dogs were there, and they didn’t do anything. It was remarkable. People could sit with them, stroke them, cry on them — it really caught my attention. It stuck with me for a lot of years, and it’s something that I wanted to do for a long time.
“It was my idea, but without the folks that have gotten involved we wouldn’t have anything,” he added. “The volunteers we’ve got are just fantastic.”
The Cranbrook team of TPOC currently has seven volunteers and seven dogs.
“Because we are so new, we’re visiting Joseph Creek and the Green Home,” LeClair said. “We’ve gotten into the school system with a program, Paws To Read. The teachers identify children who are struggling with reading, or who maybe don’t like to read. In the hour that I’m at the school, the kids have about 15 to 20 minutes apiece, we put a special quilt on the floor, and the kids get books and they read to the dogs. The idea being that one: it gives the kids something to look forward to in getting out of class, and two: it’s kind of a neat thing, that they get to read to the dog.
“And it’s been an overwhelming success. The teachers in the schools we’ve been to are just thrilled to have us.”
Comfort dog culture is just getting going here in Cranbrook.
“There are so many things I want to do with this program,” LeClair said. “With the seven volunteers we’ve got right now, we’re tapped out with the time we can give to the community. We’re holding another evaluation on the 26th of November. Unfortunately we can only evaluate four volunteers at a time.
“It’s a bit of a process to go through,” he added. “We need criminal record checks, pet history profiles, proof of vaccination, three references for the volunteers. It’s not a short process. It can take up to a month from the time the dog is evaluated to when they’re out visiting.”
Members of the public are invited to apply, but there’s likely to be a waiting list, Leclair said.
“There is no training per se. You come a attend the evaluation, and either your dog has the temperament and passes the evaluation or it doesn’t.”
The program is also open to cats, but at the moment the Cranbrook program doesn’t have an evaluator for felines.
“We just don’t have a cat evaluator currently. But that’s one of our hopes, to find someone who has extensive knowledge and background on cats, and if we find that person we will be able to bring cats into the program as well.”