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Local Therapeutic Paws superstars love making a difference

August 28, 2019   ·   0 Comments

Written By KIRA WRONSKA DORWARD

For the past six years, Beth Whysall and her dog Memphis have been cheering hospital wards, seniors homes, and helping kids learn to read as part of Therapeutic Paws. 

The Canada-wide organization, now in its 17th year, is a non-profit organization of volunteers providing animal resources for human needs (physical, mental, educational, motivational, socialization) through regular visits to hospitals, residences, schools, and wherever else animal comfort is needed.

“The need in our area just keeps growing,” says Team Leader Whysall, as Memphis stretches out on his belly for attention from passers-by. Obviously used to being the centre of attention, the Bernedoodle knows how to work a room. 

“Right now we have fourteen teams,” which consist of a pet and owner who are trained together. Whysall continues, “Seven of those teams are child-certified to work in schools, libraries, and children’s hospitals. Some dogs are just better with adults and prefer to work with seniors, and some team members prefer to work with children.”

It takes a special dog and person for this kind of thing to work. The animal has to be good with other dogs, because visits are often done in groups, and it goes without saying both dog and handler have to be good with people. A candidate goes through a process before becoming part of the team, where they are taken through a questionnaire, have assessments done and are tested for personality, not necessarily obedience. Various role-playing situations determine if an animal (and human) can handle stressful and surprise situations.

However, Ms. Whysall, a Grade 5-6 teacher at Elora’s Salem Public School, says all the testing, certification, and training is worth it. 

“It’s great to see the faces light up. I didn’t realize before I started how many seniors have to give up their pets, she says.

For children, Ms. Whysall and her team make weekly visits to elementary schools, where the dogs are brought in to help the children with their reading abilities. Children struggling with reading confidence find the dogs a non-judgemental audience, while the handlers keep their distance. 

“We find a great improvement over the eight-week program. I had one little girl in grade six who had never spoken a word in school. She started slowly whispering to Memphis while she read. Eventually, flash forward to the end of the year, and she was giving a speech to the class with Memphis at her feet.”

Ms. Whysall described a situation of a young girl with a dog phobia so extreme it was affecting her quality of life. When she first met Memphis, she wouldn’t even look at him, and by the end of the year “she was leading him into assembly.”

The dogs are also brought into high schools once a semester around exam time, to help students deal with academic anxiety in special pet-therapy rooms, which even teachers use. The dogs are also brought into Headwaters Health Care Centre not just for patients, but also by administration for staff wellness events and mental health days. 

“It’s one of my favourite visits,” says Ms. Whysall. “It’s pretty great, actually. That’s a very rewarding visit. We love doing that.”

Occasionally, her team, which covers Caledon and Dufferin County, join other regional teams for bigger hospital visits. However, within our own region, she emphasizes, “our need always outweighs our supplies…you have to find the right kind of dog, and a volunteer with the right schedule, so it’s a balancing act.”

The latest program Therapeutic Paws has taken part in is VWAP, or the Victim/Witness Assistance Program. Working with Ontario courts, animals are brought in to help calm and comfort witnesses taking the stand or giving accounts.

In general, says Ms. Whysall, “a lot of the smaller, one-time things, like an autistic child breaking down on Memphis, and by the time it’s over he’s just hanging all over him calm. It’s just something we [humans] can’t do.”

If you feel that your pet might make a suitable therapy dog, or you would like Therapeutic Paws to make a visit to your organisation, please contact Ms. Whysall at beth.whysall@ugdsb.on.ca.



         

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