Toronto

Think COVID-19 can stop this Toronto therapy dog? Think again

This is a story about the novel coronavirus. But it’s a happy one. That’s because it’s about a dog, and as her owner says: "a dog brings joy to everybody."

The pandemic has put in-person care on hold, but some volunteers have pivoted to virtual visits

Coogee is one of just a handful of therapy dogs still working during the COVID-19 pandemic. Her latest trick? Soothing seniors at a hospital care home via virtual visits. (CBC)

A global pandemic is not enough to keep Coogee the Australian labradoodle away from the seniors she loves to visit. 

But the therapy dog has been relegated to snuffling at an iPad, while they blow kisses.

Coogee, and her owner Maureen Harvey, have been visiting the residents of Sunnybrook hospital's Veterans Centre since last summer. At this point, she says some on L-Wing, where the average age is 97, think Coogee is their own dog. 

"A dog brings joy to everybody," Harvey told CBC Toronto. 

"No one pets a dog and is angry after."

WATCH: Coogee the therapy dog visits patients at Sunnybrook's long-term care home

A global pandemic is not enough to keep Coogee the Australian labradoodle away from the seniors she loves to visit. Here’s how her owner and the recreation therapist at Sunnybrook hospital's Veterans Centre got creative — by going virtual. 3:10

Before, Coogee would parade through the ward, happily being pet. Sometimes, she'd gently rest her head on some of the frailest residents. 

COVID-19 stopped those visits this March. That's when Dr. David Williams, Ontario's chief medical officer of health, issued a directive shutting down all outside access, including for therapy animals, as part of an effort to stop the novel coronavirus from getting into long-term care homes, where it can have devastating effects. 

At the beginning of June, nearly 80 per cent of Canada's COVID-19-linked deaths had been in long-term care homes. 

Harvey and Sunnybrook's Jennifer Ashby could see the shutdown coming, but it still hurt.

It's not the same as an in-person visit, but Sunnybrook’s Jennifer Ashby, here wearing a full face-shield, was keen to keep the therapy dog visits going. (CBC)

Quickly, Ashby, a recreation therapist, found an iPad and within weeks the two women were holding virtual visits with Coogee to provide a ray of sunshine for the residents (thankfully, there have been no COVID-19 cases at the facility). 

Days made, and other benefits

While many at Sunnybrook struggle with dementia or memory loss, the joy of a Coogee visit is obvious.

My favourite moments are when a veteran's having a bad day, and they see the dog, their face lights up.- Jennifer Ashby, Sunnybrook hospital

"It certainly is great to have a dog in the building," one woman named Georgie says. Two men wave to Coogee, as Harvey waves the pup's furry paw on the screen.

"You've made our day," Harvey tells one woman.

"And mine," the woman responds, with an ear-to-ear smile.

Ashby says Coogee's weekly visits give residents a few key things: a dose of "unconditional love," a sense of normalcy in a time when she's often approaching them wearing a full face shield, and perhaps best of all, a chance to practice their social skills.

Ashby says she's seen low-stakes visits with Coogee lead to better virtual interactions with family members the next day. 

"My favourite moments are when a veteran's having a bad day, and they see the dog, their face lights up… sorry," Ashby says, brushing a tear away before it can reach the top of her face mask.

"You know you've made a moment, you've changed their day. You've made them happy when they weren't happy."

Canadian experts have backed up the idea that having access to a pet can be incredibly beneficial for people's mental health, something that's being taxed by COVID-19.

Most therapy dogs staying home

In recent years, therapy dogs have become a more common sight in Toronto.

St. John Ambulance has about 275 active dogs and handlers who normally volunteer everywhere from hospitals to retirement homes to classrooms to corporate offices (the last one is how the organization raises money.) 

They've also been there on some of Toronto's worst days: including those following the Yonge Street van attack and the Danforth Avenue mass shooting.

Dexter can't go visit SickKids hospital, but has found a few chances to connect with people online via Zoom. (Submitted by Christine Paradis)

Now, due to COVID-19, almost none of those therapy dogs are working. 

Just a handful have pivoted to video calls, said Christine Paradis, a Toronto-based branch advisor with St. John Ambulance and a volunteer herself.

"Oh, it's horrible. It's been really hard," she said. 

It's not that hospitals and long-term care homes don't want video visits, it's that they lack the staffing to do the calls. In the absence of visits, volunteers have been sending videos of their dogs, or even printing posters. 

Finally, at the end of May, Paradis found a group of young caregivers who were up for an online meeting with her therapy spaniel-mix, Dexter. It's not the same, she admits, as touch is such a huge part of therapy animal visits, but it seemed to delight everyone involved.

"Dexter loves to Zoom," she said. 

It could be the bowl of treats next to the monitor. 

Dogs learning new tricks, too

Oddly enough, the therapy dogs might be struggling the most with the switch to screen-based visits. 

Paradis says Dexter pulls on his leash anytime they walk toward SickKids hospital, one of the places where they volunteer. 

Harvey says Coogee's floppy ears perk up when she hears her name, but it's clear she'd prefer wandering up to people at Sunnybrook, whether it be patients, medical staff, or families going through a tough time.

Without that stimulus, she's happy just to lay down.

That forces Harvey to help with the paw-waving, but she says she doesn't mind if it's cheering up someone on the other side of the call.

"Whatever it takes," she says.

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