British Columbia·Video

Therapy dogs bring 'pawsitive' mental health support through virtual visits

The pandemic has had an effect on many people's mental health, particularly with the surge in COVID-19 cases and the province in the midst of a third wave.

St. John Ambulance is offering 15 minute visits on Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Ashten Black said she and Pig joined the St. John Ambulance therapy dog program in 2018 and 'have never looked back.' (Submitted by Ashten Black)

The pandemic has had an effect on many people's mental health, particularly with the surge in COVID-19 cases and the province in the midst of a third wave.

On Thursday, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry warned B.C. could see up to 2,000 new cases a day by next month if the number of contacts per person is not reduced.

With personal interactions severely restricted, organizers from St. John Ambulance say they've adapted their therapy dog program so that they can continue creating connections with people to help relieve their stress and anxiety.

On Friday, the St. John Ambulance therapy dogs will be available for virtual 15 minute visits from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Participants can book an appointment online through the organization's website.

"Pre-pandemic, the charity's four-legged volunteers visited facilities ... on a weekly basis," St. John Ambulance said in a statement. "While these visits are still on pause, the therapy dog program team has adapted to a one-day virtual model to provide the connection that so many people are craving."

One of the dogs that will be providing some canine comfort is Pig — a border collie — and owner Ashten Black. Black said she and Pig joined as volunteers in 2018 when she was looking for a job for Pig.

According to a statement from St. John Ambulance, participants in the 15 minute virtual visit can learn about the dogs, ask questions, share their stories and watch the animals do a number of tricks. (Submitted by Ashten Black)

"He's just so sweet and he's so kind and he's just very well mannered, [so] the first thing that came to mind was ... therapy dog work," Black said on CBC's Daybreak North. "It has been the most rewarding experience both of us have ever had the chance of doing."

She said, normally, Pig would be able to connect with people by seeing them in person and interacting with them face-to- face, but due to the pandemic, the program is being moved to 15 minute virtual visits.

"I'll be very honest ... I was a little apprehensive of what virtual visits would be like, [because[ our dogs are there to cuddle and are very much there for the pets [received from people]," Black said. "But we have pivoted in this time, I think, very successfully."

She said participants have not only been enjoying their virtual visits with Pig but they've also been able to foster a connection and share some joyous moments together.

Watch | Ashten Black and her dog Pig show how a virtual session might work:

Therapy dogs provide virtual canine comfort

2 years ago
Duration 0:34
Therapy dogs help bring some much needed relief during times of stress, anxiety or depression. St. John Ambulance volunteer Ashten Black and her dog Pig is hoping to still provide that comfort with 15 minute zoom sessions.

"People still really like having the moment to just talk about the dog or to focus on the dog. With everything else going on, it brings us together and provides a chance to be really present," Black said.

The virtual event runs on Friday, April 16, but organizers say anyone can request a visit at any time through the St. John Ambulance's website.

LISTEN | Ashten Black talks about the virtual therapy dog visits on Daybreak North:

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With files from Daybreak North