Sue Ingham gives her border collie Destiny some attention after visiting with patients at the Red Deer Hospice Thursday. Destiny is a rescue dog Ingham acquired from Klassic Kennels and is using for pet therapy at the hospice.

Lending a helping paw: pet therapy

Health care facilities in Central Alberta are going to the dogs. So far, about 16 dogs and their owners have joined Red Deer and District SPCA’s K9 Community Outreach Pet Visitation Program. Through the program, dog/owner teams visit with seniors at continuing care facilities and patients at other health-care centres.

Health care facilities in Central Alberta are going to the dogs.

So far, about 16 dogs and their owners have joined Red Deer and District SPCA’s K9 Community Outreach Pet Visitation Program.

Through the program, dog/owner teams visit with seniors at continuing care facilities and patients at other health-care centres.

The interaction is known to positively impact health, doing things like lowering blood pressure, easing agitation and anxiety, and encouraging interaction.

Work to develop the program started about a year ago. In the spring, a bequest to the SPCA allowed the organization to have a worker dedicated to the program part-time.

So far, teams make regular visits to facilities in Ponoka, Lacombe, Red Deer and Sylvan Lake, with plans to expand to visit sick children, and those with autism and learning difficulties.

SPCA executive director Tara Hellewell said the program has “grown by leaps and bounds.” The plan is to have about 25 dogs in the program that is open to all breeds, depending on their personality, socialization and obedience skills.

“We have a really large dog. We have really small ones. We have pit bull types. We have everything,” Hellewell said on Thursday.

Dogs and their owners are evaluated for their suitability.

Owners must be at least 18 years old, willing to make a minimum three-month commitment, have owned their dog for at least six months, and provide a criminal records check to work with vulnerable persons. Dogs must be at least one year old, have up-to-date immunizations, and wear a flat buckle or snap collar — promise collars, prong collars, harnesses, halties or choke chains are not permitted.

Hellewell said many people believe their dogs have the right temperament, but unfortunately they lack the obedience required.

“They have to have extremely good manners to visit these facilities. They can’t jump up. When you jump on a senior person with very frail, crepe-like skin, they could cause lesions quite easily. (Patients) might have medication that the dogs could take if they like to steal treats.”

She said dogs have to have the training to keep looking at their owner for clarification on what they can and cannot do, and at the same time be curious.

“It’s tricky to find an animal that’s suitable.”

Having worked at a seniors care facility, Hellewell said she knows that animals have a special ability to connect with vulnerable people.

“I could see the times when dogs and cats sometimes visited, and what a difference that made to seniors in residence, how it brightened up their day and maybe took them back to when they had their own pet, their own companion,” Hellewell said.

Sue Ingham, of Pine Lake, was at Red Deer Hospice with her border collie Destiny on Thursday.

Destiny visited two patients, as well as their visitors.

“There was a great deal of interest and they just enjoyed petting her and giving her treats,” Ingham said.

“It just makes everybody feel really good.”

She described Destiny, who is about six years old, as well mannered and easy going.

“She’s just a very sweet, gentle soul and is very eager to please.”

Ingham hoped more people would consider the outreach program.

“The need is always there. It’s a great way to give back to the community. It’s a great way to be involved with the community, and it’s a really great way to meet up with new people.”

For more information, contact the SPCA’s Community Outreach Coordinator by email at esarson@reddeerspca.com or by calling 403-342-7722.

szielinski@bprda.wpengine.com

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