Chip the therapy dog sits on the couch like a Zen master, as his owner, Jeani Tingle, relates the story. “We had just finished our visit to Village of Aspen Lake nursing home when a resident’s family waved us into her room. The lady was ninety-eight years old and had very little time left.” The woman’s family had gathered by her bed to say goodbye when they’d seen Jeani and Chip walking by. The resident was too frail to move but when Jeani held Chip up to her, she immediately recognized him and smiled. It was a beautiful moment for a family going through a difficult time. “Afterward, the rest of the family was so moved,” Jeani recalls, “that they took turns holding Chip.”
Such is the power of therapy dogs. It all began with Jeani’s son. “I was still working at the time and our son was asking for a dog,” Jeani remembers. “A day or two later, we saw an ad in the Star classifieds. A person was selling a Pomeranian named Chip.
Wewent to see him and couldn’t believe how calm he was.” A few years later, Jeani’s son heard about the therapy dog program on CBC radio. He was interested in becoming a physician, so he decided to volunteer at the hospital’s therapy dog program. Jeani joined him. “As it turned out,” Jeani laughs, “that experience at Met made Alex realized he did not want to be a doctor! I, on the other hand, loved everything the therapy dog program stood for, so I stayed involved.” Ten years later, at age 14, veteran Chip is still making his rounds.
“We recently took the dogs to the University of Windsor during exam time,” Jeani says. “Hearing about the visit, some people commented to me, ‘Really? Do the students even care?’ Yes, they do. You can’t believe the response.”
Jeani and Chip regularly visit schools, retirement and assisted living homes, and the Met Hospital. “It might sound surprising, but the visits take a lot out of the dogs,” she says. “They sit on people’s laps, being held and petted, but it’s still very tiring for them.”
Jeani and Chip also visit Windsor libraries for “Meet and Greet” and “Paws 4 Stories” programs. Chip, along with a number of dogs in the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog program, are “child certified,” meaning they are unfazed by the noise and activity of being around children. The “Meet and Greet” program teaches kids how to safely meet new dogs, including techniques for remaining safe and calm when encountering strays who may run up to them and bark, or are otherwise intimidating in some way.
The “Paws 4 Stories” program seeks to improve literacy among children up to age 12 who may have weak reading skills. “The child usually sits near the dog in a quiet environment and reads to the dog.”
For all the positive human/canine interaction, there is no getting away from seeing a hard side of life. “We really form relationships with people,” Jeani said. “Some people we visit die. Or, you see some people’s difficult living situations. Some people we see are totally alone. We are their only visitors.”
So, what is it about the animals that brings people such comfort?
“The unconditional love they provide,” Jeani says. “They are completely nonjudgmental. They’re just right in the moment. Many people in the assisted living homes have had to leave their own pets, whom they miss very much. So, they really look forward to our visits.”
The Windsor program currently has 80 volunteers at 40 facilities, and there are many more facilities that would like to offer this service. Dog owners who are interested in volunteering should contact Bob Linton, Unit Coordinator for the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program, at [email protected].
The St. John Ambulance program does its best to match people with venues best suited for them and their dogs.
Volunteers are expected to make 40 visits per year. There is a mentoring process so that people don’t feel like they are getting in over their heads. Of course, every therapy dog’s career comes to an end at some point. “Right now, we have Max, a Golden Doodle, who is making his last visits at Hospice. His kidneys are failing and he’s been given about two months to live.” Jeani says Max would be on his deathbed if it weren’t for having the opportunity to go out and visit people, who seem to bring him as much joy as he brings to them.
“We will know when the time comes that Max just doesn’t have it in him to continue volunteering,” she explains. Another dog in the program, Kenya, is a South African mastiff who recently retired. She visited many people, but one resident at Aspen Lake had developed a very special connection to Kenya. When the woman passed away, Kenya suddenly refused to get onto the elevator to go to the third floor—it was like she knew the woman was gone, and couldn’t bear to see her empty room.
After a life bringing so much comfort to others, Kenya’s owner is giving her that comfort back. “Now that she’s retired, Kenya gets to do what she wants all day,” Jeani says. “She gets up and has her breakfast in the morning, and then settles onto the couch for the day.”
“There are days where I wonder if I can keep doing this,” Jeani confides. “And then I look at Chip as we’re making our visit and I think, ‘Of course! This is exactly what I want to do.’”