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St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program calms and soothes hospital patients

St. John Ambulance is a volunteer organization, usually associated with first aid training.  But it offers many other programs, including emergency response, services for youth, and the therapy dog program.

One of the many therapy dog teams is retired doctor Peter Beliveau, and his dog Mia.

Beliveau spent 38 years as an emergency physician, then gradually reduced his shifts to prepare for retirement.

"I realized I wasn't missing the medicine, but what I was missing is the social aspect of it - the communicating with staff, colleagues and also the patients," Beliveau said.

And so, early in 2015, Beliveau approached St. John Ambulance about their training program for therapy dog volunteers.

Dogs who enter the training must be well-behaved, obedient on a leash, and must love meeting people, yet be gentle and calm around them.

Not all dogs make it through the training, but Mia, who's now seven, made the cut.

Beliveau thinks the fact that Mia is a slightly older dog helped her through the training. "Until she was about four, she was a real puppy. Now she's a much more mature dog, and loves to do what she's doing."

"Until she was about four, she was a real puppy. Now she's a much more mature dog, and loves to do what she's doing," Beliveau said.

There are about 45 St. John Ambulance therapy dog teams visiting various facilities throughout Greater Victoria.

Staff at the Royal Jubilee Hospital look forward to a visit from Beliveau and Mia.

"It's a huge thing. [Hospitalization] can be such a traumatic experience for people" says physiotherapist Wendy Morton.

Rehab assistant Cailin Parry agrees. "I think it brings such a great distraction, so they're not so focused on their illness, or what's going on with them, but they can put their energy into the dog, and into Peter."

"I think it brings such a great distraction, so they're not so focused on their illness, or what's going on with them, but they can put their energy into the dog, and into Peter."

And while Mia is the conversation starter, Beliveau plays an important role too, compassionately and patiently listening to patients as they share their pain and worry.

"He's really just such a lovely, caring man," says Morton. "You can say all sorts of things to Peter that you wouldn't say to your doctor, or to care staff."

Parry adds that the staff have to make them get up and go for a walk. sometimes they're tired, and they don't want to, but with Peter and Mia they can just relax, and not have any pressure."

"Sometimes they're tired, and they don't want to, but with Peter and Mia they can just relax, and not have any pressure," Parry said.

Believeau says there are many benefits to becoming a therapy dog volunteer.

"I still get the pleasure out of helping people and meeting people. I don't get, obviously, the extreme highs and extreme lows that you'd get in the emergency department, but I share what I do have with Mia, which is neat," Believeau said.

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