When Judy Doan put out a volunteer call for a new Alzheimer Society project, it was the four-legged kind she had in mind.
“My staff suggested that a lot of our clients living at home could benefit from visits from dogs,” said the executive director of the Alzheimer Society of Sarnia-Lambton, who is also a volunteer with the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program.
“We already know the benefits of pet therapy, so it just made sense to us.”
She recruited three certified pet therapy dogs and their handlers, all of whom completed dementia training, and launched Pals with Paws. The program brings dogs into the homes of dementia patients (if they wish) during respite hours for caregivers.
“Many of these clients are no longer able to have pets, but would love a visit,” said Doan, noting pet therapy promotes relaxation, reduces behaviours like agitation, and may trigger positive memories of beloved pets.
“It stimulates conversation and memories, which are really good. And it just makes people smile.”
Lise Schoenberg, a pet therapy volunteer with her mini-poodle, Bijou, is a regular at local nursing homes, and says the benefits are tremendous.
“I’ve seen people who won’t get out of bed, who have lost all motivation — and then the dogs come in and that completely changes. They’re up and talking,” said Schoenberg. “We know our dogs are well tempered for this type of ting. They know what to do, where to go, and who we’re going to see.”
It’s also extremely fulfilling for the handlers, she said.
“You can’t express in words the feeling you get when there is a response and an appreciation from these people,” she said. “You get home and you just feel good.”
Agencies across Ontario are waiting anxiously to see how the program unfolds, said Doan.
“They’re very excited about it, and I really anticipate it taking off,” she said. “There’s some real friendships and bonding that happen.”