Who’s a good boy? How your dog can become a therapy animal in Ontario

Therapy dogs visit seniors’ residences, schools, community centres, and libraries — and demand is growing. Is your canine qualified for the job?
By Josh Sherman - Published on October 19, 2018
a woman and her dog
Karin McLean’s standard poodle, Henry, is one of more than 3,500 therapy dogs employed nationwide by St. John Ambulance. (Courtesy of Karin McLean)

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It had been two months since a man with a brain injury was admitted to Bridgepoint Active Healthcare, a hospital in Toronto’s east end, and Karin McLean hadn’t heard him so much as utter a word.

“He’d never spoken since the day he was admitted to the hospital,” she recalls.

But that all changed one day with the help of Henry, McLean’s standard poodle. “One day he just said, ‘Henry,’ when he saw us,” she says. “It gives you chills.”

Henry is one of more than 3,500 therapy dogs employed nationwide by St. John Ambulance to provide comfort to people in hospitals, seniors’ residences, schools, community centres, and libraries — and those who work with the canines say they’re seeing increased demand for the services they provide.

“People have become more aware of the [therapy-dog] programs, and many are motivated to volunteer when they see how inspirational it can be,” McLean explains.

What it takes to have a dog certified as a therapy animal varies from organization to organization: there isn’t provincial legislation regulating them. Getting Henry certified through St. John Ambulance required a police check, an interview, and orientation. “You do all that even before your dog goes to the evaluation,” she says.

The evaluation itself takes a few hours and subjects the dogs to a variety of situations and circumstances they are likely to encounter on the job. Shiny floors disturb some dogs, for example, while others might not cope well with wheelchairs (they’ll be exposed to both). Testing can differ depending on whether a dog will be working with children, adults, or both, as therapy-dog owner Rodney Kaufman discovered. When he first decided to have Harlow, his Great Dane, tested for work with adults for St. John Ambulance, he says the process focused on basic obedience. Later, Harlow was tested again for work with children. “It was a little bit more extensive; they brought in kids,” Kaufman says.

Evaluators for Therapeutic Paws of Canada, a non-profit that provides services similar to those of St. John Ambulance, sees how dogs respond to a number of situations, including milling crowds and petting from strangers. “Any indication of aggression such as growling, lifting of the lip, jumping to a stand or spinning to follow the Evaluator is a failure,” reads the evaluation form.

There are some traits that make for a good therapy animal in general. “They have to have an affinity for people,” says McLean. “They have to be quite calm.”

If a dog does make the grade, it’s been McLean’s experience that it will typically be able to work only hour-long shifts. “It takes a lot out of them,” she says. The experience has nonetheless been rewarding for McLean, who, along with Henry, volunteers mainly at palliative-care facilities and with patients suffering from brain injuries. “It just gives a moment of levity and normalcy to what they’re going through,” she says, noting that family members visiting loved ones also benefit from the St. John program.

Like McLean, Kaufman has seen firsthand that interest in therapy dogs is on the rise. “It seems to be everywhere you look right now,” he says.

As a volunteer of four years with St. John, he kept hearing the same requests from people he encountered through the program. They’d ask if he could bring Harlow, his Great Dane, to their office, or their grandmother’s home, or even their own place. That got him thinking, and after laying the groundwork for eight months, the entrepreneur launched Corporate Canine Therapy last month to offer therapy-dog services in Toronto workplaces.

“People are now looking outside the box — especially HR departments in corporate offices — to see how to get better productivity without the old ways of doing so, which is town-hall meetings and inspiring speakers and that kind of stuff,” he says. 

When a dog shows up at an office, it brings employees together — it can even reenergize a group after a dull meeting, Kaufman suggests. “They share a common bond,” he adds.

While business has quickly taken off — Kaufman has already had to hire more handlers than expected — additional public education would help, he says. One way to achieve this would be government regulations mandating how therapy animals are certified. “At any point where we have to educate the public, it’s a bit more of a difficult sale,” says Kaufman.

Josh Sherman is a Toronto-based reporter.

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