To learn more about animal-assisted therapy (AAT) as well as the people and organizations involved in promoting the healing power of pets, we talked to Barb Kelly, Director of Children’s Programs of Therapeutic Paws Of Canada (TPOC).
TOPC is a volunteer-based therapy dog and cat visitation program with the wonderful humanitarian mission of visiting nursing homes, hospitals and other institutions where therapy dogs are welcome or needed. They offer physical, mental or spiritual support and thus contribute to the healing process.
The particularity of this organization is that it provides advice, training and certification, so volunteers can add their pets to different AAT programs.
Let see what Barb had to tell us about the details of their mission.
1. How was TPOC born?
TPOC was founded in 2002 in Hawkesbury, Ontario. In August 2012, it celebrated its 10-year anniversary when it received its Letters Patent. Our founder is Judy Sauvé, who started with her pet, and five more teams, which include a handler and either a dog or a cat.
These six initial teams have grown into more than 500 teams in ten years, many of which are Child Certified. We also have some members that we refer to as “non-visitors”, i.e. people who are members of the organization, but do not have any animal at that time. This happens because their pet is retired, or simply because they do not have pets.
We are a non-profit organization, meaning that we are all volunteers and we solely rely on donations and people’s generosity.
We are in charge of starting new teams in different places, and send evaluators and a team leader on site to ensure that the team is adequately prepared for working.
We also need to keep our teams educated and apprised of new policies and procedures. There is a high costs associated with this, which is covered by donations.
We always welcome any contribution that can help us continue to grow our mission as well as provide our service safely and effectively in every location, bringing the wonderful effects of animal therapy to anyone that may need it.
2. What kind of therapy animals do you have?
Most of our therapy animals are dogs, but we also have certified therapy cats.
As the Director of the Children’s Program, I am really happy to tell you about one of the first cats authorized to work with children as part of our Paws to Read Children Program. Rhu was certified to encourage children to read at the Charlottetown public library, in Prince Edward Island. We have received inquiries regarding the evaluation of other types animals, but we stick to strictly dogs or cats.
3. Where does the organization have presence, and how do you get in contact with people who demand your services?
We are represented in six provinces: Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Ontario, British Columbia, and New Brunswick. We actually have therapy dogs working with adults and children in every one of these provinces.
People interested in pet therapy services usually contact us and ask if we have a therapy team in their area. In the case of children, they reach out to the Director of Children’s Programs directly.
4. What inspired you to approach TPOC and be part of a team?
I have worked with dogs and trained them for about 33 years now. I worked with both, animals and children, that is how I came about to be the Director of the Children’s Program.
My dog Brent retired after working for more than six years with adults, seniors and children. We even organized a small party for him. He was an incredible therapy dog.
5. What are the talents that make a good therapy dog?
The ability to perceive that there is someone in need of help is a talent that signals to us which pets will be great for therapy working. These dogs are capable of walking into a room full of people and immediately identify who needs help, it is a special sense that they have.
6. Only trained dogs can be therapy dogs?
When Brent came to me, he was an 85-pound, middle-aged Golden Retriever. He was not toilet trained and he loved everybody, but he loved them too much. He had spent all his life in reduced spaces, so he was always anxious and did not have any social skills. Within 3 days of working with him, I saw that he had potential.
He had the personality and the temperament that we were basically looking for, a well-balanced, happy dog, that wanted to be with people.
Even if I could train him by myself, I decided to take him to an obedience school and enrolled him in the Canine Good Neighbour Program to help him to socialize.
I always called him my diamond in the rough, because he was an amazing dog, although very difficult to train.
Then, I got in touch with TPOC and I went for the evaluation and completed all the procedures.
7. What are the requirements and procedures to follow in order to become a AAT team?
Regarding the handler, all our members have to provide three personal references as well as a Police Record Check. Because we are working with seniors and children, we need to ensure that they will be safe at all times. We have members of different ages, many of them are retired people who can devote time to the program.
Handlers are people with good interaction and social skills. Generally, handlers are the owners of the therapy dog or cat, who are willing to volunteer with their pet during visits.
Concerning the animal, there is no restrictions in terms of age, as long as they are one year old with proof of vaccination, or a health certificate if the animal cannot be vaccinated.
They can be dogs or cats, pure or mixed breed. They do not need to have papers, and they can be rescue animals. In terms of temperament, therapy dogs are patient and sociable, i.e. they love to interact with people and other animals in a gentle way, without anyone feeling threatened.
The animals, whether cats or dogs, must be evaluated, which means they must be tested by an expert to determine if they can be a therapy animal.
Once they pass the evaluation, they must complete four monitored visits accompanied by a team leader, an evaluator or a senior member of TPOC. Thus, the handler and the dog visit the facilities, which can be nursing homes, retirement homes, hospitals, etc., with the person in charge of monitoring everything and then writing a report.
Once all these steps are completed, meaning that your references were checked, your dog fulfilled all requirements, you have been assigned a place to visit, and you have completed the monitored visits, you are ready fly on your own. Most teams do weekly visits, but you can visit five days a week.
Each handler is insured for third party liability and, due to the insurance coverage, the length of the visit cannot last longer than an hour.
Child certified therapy dogs can also visit seniors and work in public libraries, as it is the case of our Paws To Read program, but not on the same day.
We are not allowed to work in private homes, thus we work in libraries, classrooms, and care facilities, such as the pediatric hospitals and Ronald McDonald House.
Also, we provide our members with educational seminars, which we call Best Practice Seminars, to keep them informed and updated as well as to prepare them to handle the highest level of risk that could ever arise during visits.
8. What are the abilities tested during the evaluation?
During our evaluation, we observe the handler and the dog’s interaction and social skills, that is why we try to recreate environments and situations that they may encounter during their visits. For example, in a nursing home, there will be wheelchairs and walkers as well as other dogs and handlers, so it is important to evaluate the dog’s reaction and the handler’s ability to avoid causing anybody to feel threatened or afraid.
A child certified team must be able to interact with children, thus we use young volunteers to test the dog’s behavior. For example, if the child is playing with a toy we can not allow the dog to touch the toy. Children in healthcare facilities are often sick, so the team must know how to handle special situations.
A lot of people call asking if they can be evaluated to work with kids, but it does not work that way. It is required that they have spent at least six months working with seniors or adults before being evaluated as a child team.
By visiting an institution for six months, the handler and the animal can acquire experience and the dog can get in the pattern and habit of visiting. For instance, even if I go out to monitor a visit, as soon as I put on my TPOC shirt, because of his past experiences, Brent runs to the door wagging his tail as if we were going on a visit.
Experience allows every visit to get better as you go on. For instance, I have learned so much from the people I have worked with and from my dog. He has really taught me a lot, because of his instincts and his senses, which allow him to identify somebody in need for help down the end of the hall and guide me to meet the person.
The bond between the handler and the animal, and the fact that they instinctively know who to go see, are what makes them a good therapy team. It is just amazing!
9. Based on your experience, what are the benefits of animal assisted therapy?
I think that, first and foremost, it does not matter who you visit, whether they are young or elderly, the first thing you see when the animal enters the room is a very calming effect. Animal visitation is a stress buster, it gets people to relax and reduces blood pressure, loneliness and sadness. I have seen this with residents and patients that have dementia. I have visited some who were going through terrible situation and, once we walked into the room, we somehow broke that cycle. It works for absolutely everyone, even students at university. Some of them are adjusting to many changes, such as being away from home, living on their own, and suffering the stress and pressure of university studies, which are different from high-school.
Therapy dogs help speed up healing after surgery, and I call them the best physiotherapists in the world, as they help muscles relax. They are great motivators, who can make people get out of their chair and take the walker. They also motivate children to read and practice, by reading a story to the dog. They help break social barriers and limitations, even to those who do not like dogs. They allow people to initiate conversations, relive funny memories, and this improves their confidence, self esteem, comprehension, and learning skills.
Some people ask me how to get a child and a dog working in a read program. Normally children and animals share similarities qualities. For example, they are very trusting, so naturally, dogs love children. Besides, touching an animal stimulates and produces feelings of happiness and relaxation in humans and the beneficial effects of it are amazing.
10. What is the effect of AAT in the handlers?
It definitively produces a happy feeling. It is awesome to work with your dog. Personally, I feel so blessed and thankful for being a part of a team of animal-assisted therapy. Being able to share your dog, something that you love, and see your dog get people to smile, happy to partake in a conversation. It is such a nice feeling to see that you are helping other people.