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Hospital therapy dogs bring welcome distraction to patients in pain

Volunteer program has trouble recruiting dog owners who can handle the stress of visiting a stream of ill and dying people
Vita the therapy dog visits patient Frances Spooner at St. PaulÕs Hospital in Vancouver as nurse Robbin Storey watches.

VANCOUVER -- Frances Spooner is weak from open heart surgery, but when Vita, a two-year-old French English bulldog, bounds in the room for a cuddle she feels a spark of energy.

“Oh my goodness I just love dogs. Look at her ... she’s a healer,” she said, petting the 14-kilogram animal cradled in her lap on Sunday in the cardiac wing at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver.

The Quesnel resident, who used to train show dogs, has had some complications following surgery so her hospital stay has been extended for another week.

News that her health isn’t progressing as hoped, along with the fact that she hasn’t seen her own dog in a week, saddens Spooner, but seeing Vita offers a moment of respite. She said just a few minutes visiting with the energetic rescue dog was “very therapeutic.”

Vita is one of five therapy dogs that makes rounds at St. Paul’s, offering unconditional love, companionship and cuteness to patients and their loved ones trying to cope. She’s fast becoming a star among patients and hospital staff, eliciting chuckles every time she gives a high five with her paw.

Many in the cardiac, HIV and psychiatric wards are long-term patients, and request daily visits from Vita or one of the other therapy dogs to provide temporary distraction from pain, stress and loneliness.

But Vancouver Ecovillage, the organization that runs the Therapy Dog program, can’t keep up with the demand, and is short on volunteers, according to project manager Quille Kaddon.

“If you consider other therapies, one treatment is usually not enough. So if we are using animals, either dogs or cats, as therapy catalysts then you need to have them on an ongoing basis in order to see long term therapeutic results,” said Kaddon.

Ecovillage only has five volunteers, but would like to increase that to around 15. They are looking for volunteers willing to be trained with their dogs and for pet owners with gentle dogs and cats. The screening process for volunteers can take up to two months, but Kaddon said Ecovillage will offer support through the process.

One of the problems the organization faces is that many volunteers drop out because they can’t handle seeing sick people, or terminally ill patients. “I’ve trained four volunteers in the last week, but only one has remained,” she said.

Many of the patients in the psychiatric ward are teenagers dealing with abandonment and feel rejected, so the therapy dogs are more beneficial when the patients can connect with them on a daily basis, she said.

In the HIV ward, for example, one patient has been in bed for five months and is dealing with excruciating pain and multiple operations. “So she sees this environment as a jail,” said Kaddon. “She loves visits from Vita, and you can really see a difference in the patient’s energy when she comes in.”

“When an animal walks into the room, it creates a different sense of reality. Everything changes for them in that moment. Even if they only see the dog once and they are discharged the next day, it’s powerful. Touch is an incredibly powerful transporter to coping,” added Kaddon.

Colorectal cancer survivor Peter Vkai, who is training to be a volunteer with the Therapy Dog program, said patients are always being poked and prodded by doctors and nurses but rarely get the chance to touch something. “So when you get to touch an animal that is warm and panting right by your side, it is truly amazing. I think it brings back a lot of memories for people,” he said.

“A dog doesn’t judge you. You can be hooked up to IVs up the wazoo, and yet this dog is there and it doesn’t care. It’s happy to just see you.”

Kaddon believes that Vita, who has only been a therapy dog for about a month after being rescued six months ago from a home where she was abused and neglected, loves visiting patients in the hospital.

“Vita gets more therapy than the patients. She feels loved. It’s an amazing experience for everyone,” she said.

Vancouver Ecovillage is a non-profit organization that oversees several volunteer-run projects across Metro Vancouver, including pet therapy, a permaculture gardening project in Burnaby, a garden nursery in White Rock and 12 community gardens and elementary school learning gardens.

Those interested in volunteering for the pet therapy program at St. Paul’s Hospital can visit and send a request via the contacts page or send an email to

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