Canine companionship: Ottawa Therapy Dogs seeks to strengthen animal-human bond

Photo Credit: Brittany Veinot

Ottawa Therapy Dogs is a volunteer organization established in 2000 to promote an understanding of the values and benefits associated with the animal-human bond. The group works with people in such settings as hospitals, nursing homes, retirement homes and schools, offering  more than 100 dog teams that assist with everything from general companionship to healthcare therapy after a medical setback. OTD’s Rachelle Pagé tells us more about this canine community.

Your website tells us Ottawa Therapy Dogs was the first Canadian chapter of the more global Therapy Dogs International. How would you describe Ottawa’s animal community?

Ottawa has quite a big animal community — there are many animal, and not just dog lovers, out there!  I believe that you can see people’s dedication with the attendance of so many folks during the many events around Ottawa this summer.  Almost every weekend in the summer you can find a walk organized for rescue organizations, humane societies, etc. and the participation is always quite high! 
What is your most popular program? 

One specialized program offered by Ottawa Therapy Dogs is R.E.A.D. — Reading Education Assistance Dogs. OTD’s R.E.A.D. teams work in school or library settings to help improve children’s reading abilities. The program improves children’s reading and communication skills by employing a simple but powerful method: Reading to a dog.

R.E.A.D. dogs are registered therapy animals who volunteer with their owner/handler as a team, going to schools and libraries as reading companions for children. It isn’t unusual to see a child lying on her back with her head resting on a dog, a book propped up in one hand and the other hand stroking the dog’s ears while they read together. An experienced mentor is at hand to guide the child through the reading process, as needed, with the help of their dog.

While dogs may not be able to read, they make great listeners. Their relaxed, nonjudgmental presence creates an inviting and motivating environment that is comfortable, safe, empowering and FUN!

Are certain dog breeds better as therapy dogs than others?

Kari, an Afghan Hound

Any dog can be a therapy dog, it is really about the dog’s temperament.  When you take a look at our team member profiles, you’ll see a variety of dogs ranging from a German Sheppard to a Miniature Dachshund.
Those interested in the work of OTD can attend a one-hour information session, where we cover basic information about team (handler and dog) requirements, as well as opportunities for volunteer work with OTD for those without a dog.

If people are still interested after that, we ask that they fill out a member application form and attend an orientation session. After that, OTD requires that dog (must at least two years old and less than 11 to be evaluated) and handler (the team) pass an evaluation by an OTD evaluator.

After a successful evaluation, the volunteer coordinator will assist the new team in selecting a placement for therapy work, with the aim of finding a “good fit” and a rewarding experience for dog, handler and client(s). For the initial two visits, the handler accompanies an experienced therapy team, without bringing his/her own companion animal. Then the new team is accompanied by an experienced handler for two visits.

This mentoring arrangement helps to support the new team in gaining skill and confidence in their work.

What’s been the most touching story you’ve heard to date in the Ottawa animal community?

There are so many!  We ask our members to send us stories or examples of how their work makes a different and we’ll often include those in our newsletters. 
One example is Cobber, and his handler, Kevin, a team that was presented with a plaque to recognize their partnership, support and commitment to the youth served by the Roberts/Smart Centre (1199 Carling Ave.). Cobber had been visiting the Centre weekly for the past year and won a place in the hearts of both the young people and the staff.

“I really enjoy these visits and even get so excited as we walk up to the Centre that I sometimes woof in anticipation and pull at my leash.” — Cobber, the dog

Cobber’s time with the young people who are at the Centre to learn life skills is spent in a one-on-one situations. They can play with or pet him or even run around in the gym. It is an ideal way to encourage them to learn how to take control of a situation and, by extension, themselves.

Cobber, an Ottawa Therapy Dog

What’s Ottawa’s volunteer community like? How can local residents get involved?

Guests at OTD's Members and Supporters Dinner

I believe that Ottawa is also the capital of the volunteer community!  So many good organizations out there, and, as a federal government employee, I know that a lot of time and devotion is put towards the annual United Way campaign. 

Ottawa is a very giving community.
Local residents can get involved by contacting OTD to either become a member, an associate member, or simply to support our organization if they do not have the time to volunteer. 

We will be attending a few events this summer, including a few in the near future, such as the Kanata Community Expo on June 15, and the Walk, Roll and Run at Scotiabank Place on June 19.  Feel free to stop on by and say hi! 
What’s up next for Ottawa Therapy Dogs?

Ottawa Therapy Dogs is growing and we need help!  We just held our first Members and Supporters Dinner this past April to rave reviews!  We will continue to embark on fundraising initiatives and grow our presence in the volunteer community. But growing means we need more resources — more facilities want us and we are having a difficult time keeping up with the demands out there. 

The dinner table at OTD's Members and Supporters Dinner

Also, more and more dog owners are interested in becoming an OTD team.  We not only need more teams, but we need more people to help volunteer their time.  We also have what we call an associate membership, which means you can belong to the OTD community, even if you don’t have a dog that can be a therapy dog. Or if you don’t have a dog at all, but are just a dog lover.

Thanks for the chat, Rachelle! Do you know of a cool charity we should be highlighting? Tell us about it!