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Therapy dogs lend a paw to those who need it most

Three decades down, many to go for Pets as Therapy Sudbury volunteer group

There's no question the joy a pet can bring, which is why for 33 years, a group in Sudbury has been volunteering their time to share that unconditional love with those who need it most. 

The Pets as Therapy program is a volunteer initiative spearheaded by 84-year-old Rita Terry, through which retired individuals bring their dogs to various health care facilities in Greater Sudbury to visit with and comfort patients.

It was started in 1986 by Bev Baxter, founder of Baxter Animal Hospital, who passed control of the program to Terry a little over one year after its introduction. And after three decades of volunteerism, she is proud to have loved every minute of it.  

"On a whole, (dogs) bring out the best in people," she said.

Terry and her husband moved to Canada from England 10 days after their marriage in 1957. She worked for IBM for 11 years following their immigration and raised two children during that time, acclimatizing her to the demands of a busy lifestyle. 

It was shortly after these now grown-up children left home that Terry said she became a client at Baxter Animal Hospital - making this the perfect time to take on a new challenge. 

Terry said she had never done something like that before, but her desire for a hobby and long-time love of dogs, made taking on the position of co-ordinator an easy one. 

"All of us find these visits very rewarding," she said, not only for the look on the patient's face while interacting with the animal, but what it can mean for their recovery. 

The dogs have a calming effect on the patients, said Terry, which can allow for more open discussion with guests and staff that may not have otherwise been achieved. There are also more miraculous cases, she said, such as that of an individual who had been in a coma for 18 months at the time of their visit. 

"I remember putting my dog at the time on his lap and he opened his eyes for the first time and the family was just elated," she recalled. "That does just does your heart good."

Having the health and mobility to do this good work is a blessing in itself Terry explained, and one that she is grateful for every day. 

Two years ago Terry's husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, after 84 years of near-perfect health. They will have been married 63 years this past Sunday. 

But while this could be seen as a tragedy, an undoubtedly it is, Terry said she focuses her attention on the beautiful life they continue to lead together. Through her work with Pets as Therapy, she said she is reminded quite often of the blessing it is. 

Pets as Therapy currently has 20 members, who bring between seven to eight dogs per visit. She said the group tried introducing cats and a dwarf bunny on two separate occasions in the past, but neither visit went well enough for them to host another. 

In 33 years, Terry said the group has never had an incident between a dog and patient, the group members or their dogs themselves. 

"That's why I'm very fussy who I take," she said. 

Their schedule is organized six months at a time, based on the requests made by a health care centre's manager or head nurse of a particular floor, said Terry. It's not very often that the group receives a request for one patient in particular, but it has occurred in the past. 

Since introducing the group, Terry said the only thing that would interrupt this schedule would be a patient declining the visit or the room being quarantined due to infection. This year though, the group has had to cancel several visits due to the allergies of staff - which she said is a first for Pets as Therapy. 

The program was launched at the old General and Memorial Hospital, making Health Sciences North the group's primary focus following the hospitals' amalgamation. Some other locations that Pets as Therapy frequents are St. Joseph's Villa, St. Joseph's Continuing Care Centre, Kirkwood Place: Psychiatric Outpatient Clinic and the Lasalle Residence senior facility. 

While some groups of a similar form and function ask participants to pay an annual membership fee, Terry said involvement with Pets as Therapy is free. The only cost members are asked to pay is the $60 background check, a club T-shirt and any cost associated with a tuberculosis test, that must be completed to volunteer at Health Sciences North. 

This cost can be a deterrent for some to participate, said Terry, but on a plus side, it helps ensure those who choose to apply are interested and dedicated to the initiative. 

Terry said Pets as Therapy is currently looking for new volunteers. Interested participants must be available for daytime visits only and have a sociable personality, said Terry, which is why their group tends to be comprised of retired individuals only. 

Dogs must like people, children and other dogs, and be able to walk on a leash. All sizes are welcome - small, medium or large - so long as they are well behaved. 

Those interested in participating in the program are asked to contact Rita Terry by email at ratfirst@yahoo.ca.




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Keira Ferguson, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

About the Author: Keira Ferguson, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

A graduate of both Laurentian University and Cambrian College, Keira Ferguson is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter, funded by the Government of Canada, at Sudbury.com.
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