St. John Ambulance therapy dog volunteer Ashley Desautels and her therapy dog Beau. (Colleen Flanagan/THE NEWS)

St. John Ambulance therapy dog volunteer Ashley Desautels and her therapy dog Beau. (Colleen Flanagan/THE NEWS)

St. John Ambulance providing ‘pawsitive’ support with virtual therapy dog event

With hospital, care home and school visits on hold, service finds another way to connect

Nothing relieves stress better than a visit from our furry best friends.

St. John Ambulance recognizes that and so on April 16, their therapy dogs will be providing virtual canine comfort to those in need for Stress Awareness Day.

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Pre-pandemic, the charity’s four-legged volunteers visited facilities in B.C. such as hospitals, care homes, schools, workplaces, and more on a weekly basis. While these visits are still on pause, the therapy dog program team has adapted to a one-day virtual model to provide the connection that so many people are craving and to raise funds for the program.

Molly, a golden retriever, is one of the many dogs ready with her Zoom account for the big day. She has been a therapy dog since November 2018 and specializes in visiting senior residences and workplaces such as law firms. Her handler, Shirley Earle, said it never gets old seeing the difference in mood from everyone that gets to meet Molly.

“Dogs give non-judgmental and unconditional love, and Molly demonstrates that wherever she goes. We miss our visits so much and we know all of the seniors we visited in the past miss their weekly comfort as well,” said Earle. “We know that nothing can replace the physical part of our visits, but I hope we can fill some of that void during this tough time with Molly’s virtual presence.”

In the 15-minute visits, participants can expect to hear about the dog and their volunteer work, learn about the importance of dogs when it comes to mental health, be able to ask questions or share their own stories, and maybe even watch the pup show off some talents and tricks.

According to a survey done by the Canadian Mental Health Association, 42 per cent of British Columbians said that their mental health has deteriorated since the onset of the pandemic. Interactions with therapy dogs have been proven to help decrease stress levels, loneliness, and simply provide moments of undistracted joy.

RELATED: Working women report poor mental health, with stress higher among working moms: poll

Ryan Ward has seen that effect firsthand through his visits with his therapy dog Penelope, a mini goldendoodle. They have volunteered with St. John Ambulance for over two years and regularly visited the Windermere Care Centre and have supported various therapy dog community events. Whether it’s helping distract care home staff from a long day, providing companionship to seniors, or bringing smiles to a workplace, Ward said it’s incredible to watch the calming effect Penelope has on people.

“The pause of visits is a loss both ways, for us and them. We’re glad we can find ways to still be there even if only through a screen. Dogs have the ability to bring positivity to their surroundings, and Penelope loves to make people smile,” said Ward.

The virtual event will run on April 16th, with 15-minute time slots available between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Anyone can book a visit, whether it’s one individual, a workplace team, or alongside family or friends. To book a visit, make a $10 or $20 donation to the therapy dog program at https://supportsja.ca/stress-awareness-day. After making a donation, an email will be sent to choose a time slot.

RELATED: Stress leave, tears and insomnia: B.C. teachers feel the strain of COVID-19

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