A local volunteer group is looking for funds to help them continue to bring therapy and reading assistant dogs to seniors and children in the Cariboo.
The dogs in the program visit Dunrovin Park Lodge and Maeford Place Assisted Living Residence to greet seniors and other residents each week, and also take part in a literacy program for Grade 1 students at Riverview Elementary School in Quesnel. Other volunteers, based in 150 Mile House, work with students at 150 Mile Elementary School.
In Dunrovin and Maeford Place, the dogs are able to say hello seniors and other residents who otherwise might not have any visitors. “We have seen, over the years, people just throw their arms around our dog and they just cuddle her, and they cry and they tell us about the stories of the dogs that they used to own. It’s just so incredible to watch the effect that a dog will have on these people,” says Lynne Worden, who volunteers with her husband Terry and their dog, Dusty, and acts as secretary for the volunteer group.
As Worden sits in Dunrovin’s lobby with her husband, their small, tan-coloured dog Dusty, and a burly St. Bernard named Meg, passing residents smile and reach for the dogs, often stopping to speak with their handlers.
Resident Doug Paterson says he loves it when the dogs visit. Particularly Dusty, who he says never barks.
Paterson’s friend and fellow resident, Larry Syme, echoes his sentiment, adding, “I was born and raised with [dogs].”
When they visit the students at Riverview and 150 Mile elementary schools, the dog will patiently sit with a student (whom it was previously matched with) while the student tries to teach the pet to read. The idea is that the dog doesn’t judge the student when they make a mistake, which allows them to gain confidence and move past any anxieties they might have when it comes to reading.
The volunteers who now run the group were formerly involved with the charity Cariboo Hoofbeats Assisted Activity Program Society (CHAAPS), which was suddenly dissolved in March.
CHAAPS ran a program with therapy dogs and horses, which shut down and dispersed all of its resources to another charity once the horses grew too old to participate in the program. It was originally started with horses, which were used to help people suffering from brain injuries, as well as people with autism and physical disabilities.
Eventually, CHAAPS expanded to include dogs.
But the dissolution of the program left many of the volunteers without the resources they needed to keep volunteering. Instead of giving up, however, a small group of former CHAAPS volunteers have come together to create a new program.
Therapy and Reading Assistant Pets or TARAPS — as the volunteers now refer to themselves — may no longer have the financial and organizational backing of a registered charity, but they’re making the best of what they do have: calm, patient therapy dogs and the desire to keep helping.
But in order to keep helping, the group needs funds. Their most immediate need is $500, to cover the yearly cost of their third-party liability insurance, which will expire at the end of the calendar year. The insurance covers them if, for example, someone were injured tripping over one of the therapy dogs during their visits.
To visit Northern Health facilities, the dogs must also carry identification, or a visible sign that identifies them as a therapy animal. To meet this requirement, TARAPS has designed a logo, and now must pay to have it made into badges to attach to the dogs’ harnesses.
The group also has no posters, literature, handouts or banners, which they could use to raise awareness of their new organization — and to register their group as a charity would also cost money they do not currently have. As part of their literacy program, they also used to have books and flashcards for the students to use, but those tools were given away when CHAAPS dissolved. They’re also hoping to eventually be able to replace those items as well.
The group has received letters of support for the fledgling program from facilitators at Dunrovin, Maeford Place and Riverview Elementary School. Each letter echoes the next: facilitators write about the joy of the dogs’ visits, and the many benefits they provide, like helping otherwise isolated seniors socialize, or providing children with the confidence to not only learn to read, but also improve their social skills.
There are currently seven dogs in the program, with four dogs operating out of Quesnel and three dogs operating out of 150 Mile House.
As well as funds, the group is looking for more dogs and volunteers to join the program.
To join, dogs must first go through a rigorous testing process. Animals in the program need to be capable of withstanding anything thrown at them when visiting nursing and assisted care facilities, as well as being good with children.
The test involves bringing a dog and its handler into a room with all of the noise and potential difficulties of a nursing home: loud carts, strong smells, yelling, walkers and wheelchairs, and more.
TARAPS has a test for interested dogs and handlers coming up in January.
Not every dog is cut out for the job, says Worden. And even among those with the perfect temperament, some dogs don’t like the smell of care facilities, or can’t ride in an elevator — something they need to be able to handle to visit Dunrovin. But a dog that can’t visit Dunrovin may still be able to visit Maeford Place, which provides an environment some dogs may find less stressful.
Moreover, not every dog in TARAPS does both the school program and Dunrovin and Maeford visits. It comes down to what both the dog and its handler are able to commit to.
Although the visits can sometimes be stressful for the dogs, Worden says her pup Dusty loves them. “We get out her little bag of supplies and she sees her harness, and her tail is going 90 miles per hour. When we get to Dunrovin, she doesn’t even have to be on her leash, she’ll go flying through the automatic doors and she’s just headed down the hall. She could visit without us being there, she just loves it.”
Anyone who would like to donate to, help, or get involved with TARAPS can get in touch with Merial Wild, the group’s president, at 250-747-0114, or Lynne Worden, the group’s secretary, at 250-747-2323.