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The wondrous benefits of canine therapy

Molly the dog has undergone extensive training so she can bring joy and healing to those she visits

For roughly two years the residents of Forest View Place have been enjoying the company and health benefits of a therapy dog team who go into the facility at least once a week to offer their services.

Handler Sharen Holstein and Molly the therapy dog have undergone extensive training through St. John Ambulance so the pair can bring joy and a degree of healing to those they visit.

“She is such a mellow dog and when I went through the Saint John’s Ambulance course and realized the benefits and the pleasure it gives (the residents), that’s what keeps us coming here,” said Holstein.

“The therapy helps with the heart, blood pressure, and even dementia, it takes them out of it.”

According to information provided by St. John Ambulance, a visit from a therapy dog can produce what it calls the Halo Effect, which can last up to 45 minutes beyond the actual visit of the therapy team.

The Halo Effect comes from the soothing, accepting and happy demeanor of the dogs and the fact it can sometimes trigger pleasant memories of the patient’s past experience of their favourite pets.

A dog in a care facility also lessens the feeling of a sterile environment and can lift the patient’s mood by reminding them of life outside the facility.

Holstein’s companion Molly is a border collie and ridgeback mix she picked up for free on the website Kijiji and who received her Therapy Dog certificate in April, 2016.

“I picked her up to take her to Salmon Arm for a six week dog course—master dog training—for obedience and guard dog, but she was just a kind dog, so that’s why I thought she’d be good,” Holstein said.

“She’s done a little therapy in Salmon Arm and we went for it through St. John Ambulance — it’s really been a good experience; they’re not a service dog for the blind or hearing impaired, they’re just a family, cuddly pet. Now I’m training a boxer, bull mastiff cross.”

Molly also impresses her patients with a good list of tricks, provoking laughter and enjoyment every time she stops by Forest View for a session with the residents.

Some of the scientific research results of a visit with a therapy dog include a release of various neurotransmitters in the brain, which cause a plethora of physiological changes, according to St. John ambulance.

Some of these changes are reduced stress and anxiety as a result of a release of oxytocin and a drop in stress hormones like cortisol, adrenaline and aldosterone.

A visit with a therapy dog can also lower blood pressure and heart rate, also from the increase of oxytocin in the blood stream; oxytocin, dopamine and endorphin levels also increase after 20 minutes of interacting with a friendly pooch and many patients report less pain after visits from a therapy dog.

According to St. John Ambulance, the first therapy dog may have been Smoky, who helped patients of Dr. Charles Mayo in the Second World War at a hospital Mayo commanded.

When Mayo saw the benefits to his patients from having Smoky around, he encouraged the use of therapy dogs at hospitals where he worked when he returned from the war.

There are now 56 therapy dog teams in Kamloops, Chase, Clearwater and 100 Mile House, though St. John Ambulance would like to increase that number to 70 teams to meet the community needs.

“I’m the only one working in Clearwater; it’s all volunteering and we go from one patient to another and they light up when they see Molly,” Holstein said, adding she and Molly are going to start visiting day cares to bring some more enjoyment to children in the area.

Anyone who has a friendly dog and wants to start a therapy team in Clearwater is encouraged to call St. John Ambulance at 250-372-3853 to set up training.

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