Therapy dogs: Finding comfort through the love of a furry friend

Photo courtesy St. John Ambulance

Photo courtesy St. John Ambulance

When it comes to bringing a little joy to someone going through a tough situation, sometimes a furry, four-legged friend is just right for the task.

That’s the thinking behind the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program, which matches volunteers and their dogs with those in need of a friendly visit.

“If we’re going to places where people are in a lot of pain or a lot of stress, there’s usually an immediate, favourable reaction when they walk into the room,” says Kevin Poulton, marketing and sales manager for St. John Ambulance in Ottawa.

“It’s kind of like a brightening – a high point of their day.”

Bringing comfort to the sick, lonely and those in need of a friendly visit, therapy dog services are offered in a range of community settings, including seniors’ residences, care facilities, schools, universities and colleges. Poulton adds that even stress-filled workplaces can benefit from the program.

“If you’re in a workplace that’s really sales oriented, or like a lawyer’s office, it’s something that’s needed,” explains Poulton. “The main focus is that the dogs provide a distraction for anyone dealing with a high level of stress or pain.”

The program gives people the chance to talk with the volunteer and the dog usually once per week, for about an hour. Of course, they also have the opportunity to pet and cuddle the dog, and bask in the unconditional love of man’s best friend.

“It’s very rewarding for our volunteers because they get to parade their pet around and everyone’s just loving the dog,” says Poulton. “It brings more energy into the room that might have been lacking before.”

Therapy dog services are available across Canada; it’s just one of the nationally-recognized core community service programs offered by St. John Ambulance volunteers. Other programs include medical first-response services, emergency response and youth services.

In Ottawa, the therapy dog program dates back to 1990. Currently, there are about 25 active volunteer-dog teams in the National Capital Region, and the hunt is on for new recruits.

“We’re always looking for more volunteers,” says Poulton. “Right now, demand is outpacing supply.”

To become a therapy dog member, a volunteer must be 18 or older and have a dog that’s at least a year old. The first step is an information session at Ottawa’s brand-new, state-of-the-art facility to meet with other volunteers and determine if the program is the right fit.

Then, prospective therapy dogs must pass a test before being approved for the program.

“They have to be able to walk by food without taking it, be OK with loud noises and we have to know that they’re not going to jump on children,” says Poulton.

“Generally, it’s the natural temperament of the dog and the command the owner has over the dog that we’re looking at.”

For more information or to join the St. John Ambulance therapy dog program, visit