Posted Jul 1, 2010 By Ray Yurkowski

EMC News – Proceeds from a yard sale last weekend helped support two very different causes in the community. The event was a partnership between the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dogs and Community Living.

The Therapy Dog Program takes a volunteer and their dog into hospitals, seniors’ residences or nursing homes on a weekly basis and partnerships have been established where people are often restricted from having pets.

“Some people in nursing homes don’t have any visitors,” said Therapy Dogs’ Trent Hills division co-ordinator Pat Copperthwaite. “And we’re the ones that are there, at the same time, every week.

“You really build a bond, you really shouldn’t get that close, but you do. We get attached to a lot of people.”

“We run into some sad stories sometimes, a lot of good ones but some sad ones,” she added. “We do a lot of crying.”

In Ontario, the Therapy Dogs program outnumbers all other aspects of St. John Ambulance says Copperthwaite. Established in 1992, the program reaches out to thousands of people across Canada on a daily basis and has become recognized as a leader in animal-assisted intervention. St. John Ambulance knows many people can benefit physically and emotionally from regular contact with the unconditional love of a dog.

“The dogs don’t judge,” said Copperthwaite.

The qualifications for getting into the program are quite rigorous she says. Prospective volunteers must undergo a police check and provide three personal references. As well, the dog’s vaccination records must be on file and that’s just the start.

Should your dog be a therapy dog? Prospective therapy dogs must be well mannered, calm, obedient and responsive. The program looks for dogs that will be engaged when visiting with people, not just walk up to someone and lie down.

“You don’t just throw a scarf on a dog and away you go,” says Copperthwaite. “They have to be tested and have four supervised visits and have ten visits before they’re accepted into the program.”

Because the dogs are taken into hospitals and nursing homes, “You can’t just take a dog in off the street,” she said.

Volunteers and their dogs are generally expected to provide 15 to 20 minutes weekly of visitation per patient, which is the minimum to create a bond between the patient and the dog.

Copperthwaite mentions the “Paws 4 Stories” program where volunteers and their dogs “go into the schools to help students who have problems with reading.” In Campbellford, the therapy dogs help out at St. Mary’s Elementary School, at the library and both Community Living residences.

“The dog must be child-tested for the program,” she adds. “There’s a special test, after 40 visits in one year, where they can be registered as a child visitor.”

As well, Therapy Dogs volunteers help out with other community organizations that need a hand said Copperthwaite, adding typical volunteers are “people who are looking to give back to the community.”

Proceeds from the yard sale were also in support of Community Living’s “27 Doxsee Day Support Program.”

“It’s a fund to help people realize their dreams and passions,” said Outcomes Facilitator Beth Michel. “If something’s going on and they want to get there, we help make it happen.”