'He knows that's his place': Manitoba therapy dog missing his rounds visiting hospitals in Westman
Mark Saler and his dog, Grizzly, continue to find ways to stay connected with patients in Westman
Don't let Grizzly's size fool you. The 150 pound, St. Bernard dog is a big softie, especially when it comes to comforting patients at hospitals in the Prairie Mountain Health Region in western Manitoba.
Grizzly's owner, Mark Saler, says since the pandemic hit last year, the licensed therapy dog has been feeling blue not being able to make his regular rounds in Brandon, Minnedosa and Neepawa.
"It has changed a lot for us," said Saler. "We haven't been able to make our weekly rounds to the hospitals."
Saler and the seven-year old therapy dog would visit hospitals in western Manitoba on a weekly basis.
For six years, the pair spent time with patients and their families, greeting visitors and saying 'hi' to busy hospital staff.
Instead, Saler found another way to continue bringing joy to patients and staff from a distance.
"So we came up with the idea of buying a whole bunch of stuffed St. Bernards and leaving them at the hospitals, for the kids to have until Grizzly can return in person again," Saler said.
Saler adds it started last year after the Minnedosa Lions Club awarded Grizzly with a medal of hope, and gave $500 to Saler to pay for his travel expenses on his weekly trips to area hospitals.
However, he felt the money would be better spent giving back to the community. He says others heard what he was doing and have offered support to them.
"Several businesses in this area have been contributing ever since and helping this project come together."
The Minnedosa-area resident says with all the donations he's dropped off more than 200 stuffed toys at area hospitals.
Doing it all his life
Saler says he's grown up always having a St. Bernard dog, but knew when he got Grizzly he wanted to train him as a therapy dog.
His reason for training Grizzly is simply to bring more kindness into the world, and help people that are in desperate need of a smile.
Pre-pandemic, Saler says, Grizzly would usually spend time with sick children and cancer ward patients.
"Grizzly has such a great demeanour to him. He's always nice and mellow and just loving, and the minute we walk into the hospital, it is nothing but smiles out of everybody."
Lately, Saler says his canine companion is still having a hard time adjusting to how pandemic has affected his work.
"Last few weeks that I've been dropping these St. Bernard stuffed animals off the hospitals, he comes with me," Saler said. "I drive a Jeep and I leave the back window open for him, and he's been giving me quite a few barks when I walk into the hospital without him because he knows that's his place and where he should be going in."
These days, Saler says, the 150 pound dog is spending his time running around on their acreage just outside of Minnedosa, a town about 45 kilometres north of Brandon.
The gift of Grizzly
Saler says he's received an outpouring of gratitude and kind words for the donations of toys and the physically distant visits to hospitals and care homes.
"I've got lots of social media, private messages sent to me from the actual parents of the children that have been getting these," he says. "They are just so overwhelmed with receiving the gift of Grizzly."
With close to 12-hundred followers on Instagram, Grizzly is able to share the community work he's done around Manitoba which also included appearances at Winnipeg Jets games for "Hockey Fights Cancer" night at Bell MTS Place.
Saler says he intends to keep donating as long as the community continues to support him and Grizzly, and they're getting that community support.
Starting in May, Saler says Co-op grocery stores in Brandon, Minnedosa and Neepawa will be donating a stuffed dog to patients for every one that is sold.
"As long as the donations keep coming in from other businesses, we will keep doing it. We will hand out as many as we can get until we can get back to the hospital."