Skip to content

How to get a therapy dog visit on the Sunshine Coast: Just Ask Angie

The St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program is actively looking for people who’d like visits from the program's volunteer dogs (and their human handlers) who visit people who are feeling lonely, dealing with illness, looking for more support, or who just need a little boost of love and companionship.
C. Just Ask Angie_Sept_9_2022_d
Newly passed handlers and their dogs at the Botanical Garden Harvest Festival Sept. 4. Left to right: Alistair Higson and Ed Wong with Bruno, Maureen Phillips and Gabriel, Karl Weber with Tao and Rick and Gunn Walters with Sindre.

Q: What is the Therapy Dog Program … and can I get a visit?

A: A neat pamphlet recently landed on my desk. It’s for the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program. It’s a program where volunteer dogs (and their human handlers) visit people who are feeling lonely, dealing with illness, looking for more support, or who just need a little boost of love and companionship. At the Resource Centre, we see so much need in the areas of mental health support and companionship on the Coast.

Here on the Sunshine Coast, unit facilitators Heather Fowler and Rob Haneck say the program is actively looking for people who’d like doggie visits! This can be individuals or groups, from adult day programs, seniors’ groups, support programs, workplaces, social groups and so much more. As well, if you’re organizing a special community event, the dogs and handlers would love to join.

From toy poodles to great danes, those who request therapy dog visits can expect once-a-week visits. This gives clients, dogs and handlers a chance to develop a real relationship.

While you may already be convinced that you’d like to give these dogs belly rubs, and wondering where to sign up, know that there is science behind this too: the Therapy Dog pamphlet says “petting dogs is proven to lower blood pressure, calm people who are agitated, and refresh the mind of those who are confused or stressed.”

With back to school on the brain, there’s a kid-focused program under the therapy dog umbrella called Paws 4 Stories that is making its debut on the Coast this year. Dogs and their handlers go into schools and libraries to support kids’ reading and communication skills. It sounds like a super neat format to support learning and confidence-building for all kids, in particular for those with brain differences or disabilities. Kids get the benefit of calm and relaxation dogs can provide, as well as a chance to read to a certified St. John Ambulance therapy dog for 20 minutes (so cute)! I can’t help wondering how many times these dogs get to hear Where’s Spot, Clifford the Big Red Dog or Oh No, George! Or maybe they prefer Pete the Cat. Worth noting, the kid-focused dogs have all passed a specific evaluation showing they can work with kids.

Whether the dogs work with kids or adults, all dogs and volunteers must go through a routine screening process that includes a background check. Participant dogs must get signed off by their vets as having all of their up-to-date vaccines etc., while staying well-groomed and in good health. As well, St John Ambulance requires dogs to pass “temperament and suitability assessments” to make sure each dog is the type of Fido who is adaptable to any number of situations that could arise during all sorts of visits.

In terms of the people who keep this program running, the therapy dog program is always looking for more owners and their dogs, or simply dog-loving people, who would be willing to get trained as therapy dog volunteers. So, to build on my last column promoting the huge (or in some cases, dire) need for volunteerism on the Coast right now, here is one more worthy organization that would love your interest and help!

If you’d like to sign up for a visit from a snuggly, woofy, furry friend – or if you know someone who does, Heather or Rob can be reached at 604-747-3113 or email  [email protected] . As well, if the thought of doing this kind of volunteer work sounds like a pawsitive contribution you could make, get in touch with them!

Angie Theilmann is an information and referral specialist at the Sunshine Coast Resource Centre, your community information hub. Please note that as of September the Resource Centre is open Monday to Thursday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Appointments are recommended to be sure we are available to help you. Contact us: [email protected] or 604-885-4088.