Connie Bohnsack and her therapy dog Rooster at Ronald McDonald House in Red Deer.

More than man’s best friend

The kindness a young girl and her parents received when she suffered a catastrophic injury led her as an adult to her own special way of comforting others. It was as ordinary a Canadian winter day as it could be — six-year-old Connie Bohnsack was on the ice during figure skating practice as her mom Sharon looked on.

The kindness a young girl and her parents received when she suffered a catastrophic injury led her as an adult to her own special way of comforting others.

It was as ordinary a Canadian winter day as it could be — six-year-old Connie Bohnsack was on the ice during figure skating practice as her mom Sharon looked on.

Growing up in the Rocky Mountain town of Canmore, skating was part of Connie’s regular activities.

“I thought it would be really fun to do cartwheels on the ice, much to my mother’s warnings to knock it off. I kept doing it. A petulant six-year- old. And I put the skate blade right through my face.”

Connie, now 38 and a 14-year resident of Red Deer, doesn’t know how it happened.

“Blood was gushing, just pouring out everywhere.”

A helpful man quickly grabbed her and put pressure on the wound, and she was taken to the local medical clinic and stitched up. The doctor put twice as many stitches in as necessary to help prevent scarring.

Later that night she woke up her father, Reinhardt. Her face was really swollen.

”I wasn’t feeling that well. Something was horribly, horribly wrong, so they took me to the hospital and I was immediately transferred by ambulance to the Children’s Hospital (in Calgary) for surgery.”

As it turned out, she had broken the bones in the right side of her face and surgery was needed to remove them so her face could heal.

So began an extended stay in hospital for her and her mother.

As it turned out, in the early days of the Ronald McDonald House program in Calgary, her mother was able to stay by her side so she wouldn’t have to drive back and forth from Canmore.

Her mother was given a cot to sleep on, bathroom essentials and sandwiches, and a shower was available.

Connie doesn’t recall exactly how long she was hospitalized. “To me it felt like forever.”

Seven years ago she was reading a story about a man and his dog who visited patients in Rocky Mountain House Hospital.

“It brought me back to my childhood at the hospital where there were dogs for me to play with. They weren’t pet therapy dogs but there were people who brought their dogs … to get my mind off of being sick.”

Connie had just adopted her dog, Rooster, when she read the story.

She had discovered Rooster at the Bow Valley SPCA in Canmore. “I wanted a friend, a buddy, little bit of protection, too.”

It turned out the chow-cross would be that and more.

Rooster got his name from a woman who loved John Wayne movies and the character he once played, Rooster Cogburn. When the dog held his tail over his back and the sun shone through it, it looked like a red rooster tail.

Connie noticed Rooster because he was so calm and quiet. He had been found at a ranch in the area and surrendered to the SPCA.

“He was really, really shy. He didn’t know how to play.”

She spent some time with him that day, trying to teach him how to play with a toy. The animal shelter people told her that after she left he played himself out with the toy. He was estimated to be about 18 months old.

After reading the story about the man and his dog, Connie decided Rooster, a fast learner, was going to become a pet therapy pooch.

“He needs something to do. He’s really intelligent. He needs a job,” she thought.

She soon had him at the St. John Ambulance therapy dog program in Red Deer for an evaluation.

Therapy dogs are used to help cheer up or comfort people who are lonely or sick. They and their human partners can visit places like hospitals, seniors homes and libraries. Started over 20 years ago, the St. John program now has over 3,000 therapy dog teams across Canada.

St. John runs the dog through a series of tests to see how it responds. These include things like being around wheelchairs, hearing loud noises, being crowded and so on.

“He failed miserably, We were devastated,” Connie said.

“They usually don’t give a second chance but for some reason they saw something in Rooster, they saw something in me.”

Six months later, once she learned how to control the puppy in Rooster, she took him back for another test.

“He aced it.”

Then began the long process that may or may not lead to the therapy dog being allowed to be around children.

The dog has to work 300 hours with adults before he is eligible to challenge the children’s test, said Connie. Those are all volunteer hours.

“It’s very stringent rules for the kids.”

Rooster worked at a nursing home in Red Deer, as well as Bethany Care Centre, where he visited dementia patients.

When the day came that Rooster finally had his 300 hours in, Connie drove him to Lethbridge because that was the nearest place he could challenge the test at the time. She really wanted to get into Reading Tales program at Red Deer Public Library. That program involves children who need help with reading being comforted by a therapy dog.

Rooster passed the test and the pair became involved in the library program.

And then came a special moment for Connie two years ago.

The new Ronald McDonald House Central Alberta in Red Deer had an opening for a therapy dog. St John Ambulance, which does the placements, asked her if she would be interested.

“I said, ‘Absolutely!’ If I can give them one ounce of what they gave my Mom, my Dad, I’ll pay it forever.

“We were welcomed there with open arms.”

Ronald McDonald House Central Alberta offers a low-cost place to stay, as well as support and comfort, for out-of-town families who have critically ill children receiving treatment at Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre. It opened in 2012 after extensive community fundraising helped make it a reality.

On their first day there, Connie said she and Rooster didn’t want to leave.

“Just the joy on the kids’ faces and the families. … They just pet the dog and have chit chat with me, it really just helps.”

Once a week, Connie and Rooster visit Ronald McDonald House. Her mom has gone to the house with her. “She loves it there.”

Rooster is eight now. “As long as he’s healthy and able to do it, we’ll keep doing it. We love being out in the community and helping people,” said Connie.

As it turns out, she just started working a full-time job at Ronald McDonald House. The position of family services co-ordinator came open and she got the job. She and Rooster will continue to do their volunteer work there as well.

As for skating, Connie doesn’t do much of it these days because she is too busy. But she did get back on skates as a kid.

Donald Jackson, the Canadian Olympic figure skater, came to Canmore as a guest skater in the local ice show. He was retired then, but before that Jackson had won four Canadian titles, and a bronze medal at the 1960 Winter Olympics.

Connie’s mom spoke with Jackson, telling him about her daughter’s injury and asking him how she could get her daughter back skating.

Jackson offered to skate with Connie.

“That got me skating again.”

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