Laurie Thwaites and her Burnese Mountain pet therapy dog Mecho. (Lauren O’Malley)
“We’re very small, but we’re mighty,” says Lori Thwaites describing the Niagara chapter of Therapeutic Paws of Canada. She’s clearly not referring to her own therapy dog, Mecho, a 119 lb. Burnese Mountain dog. (The name, pronounced “Meeko,” means “teddy bear” in Bulgarian.)
Thwaites recently became the team leader of the chapter, which is something she never would have anticipated seven years ago, she says in her comfortable living room in her home in Virgil.
It’s been seven years since Thwaites and her husband visited a Burnese Mountain dog breeder, hoping to choose their family pet. The breeder said, “You don’t choose a dog, the dog chooses you.” 10-week-old “Miss White” as she was then called promptly crawled into Thwaites’ lap and fell asleep. That’s where it all begins.
“We took Mecho to Sit Down and Stay dog training school,” she says. “They’re local, very good trainers. They said we had a good dog on our hands.” Thwaites and Mecho achieved various levels of certification, including CGN (Canine Good Neighbour). “Mecho has more letters after her name than I can count,” she says. Thwaites volunteered with the trainers, and wound up becoming very engaged in the canine community.
She decided to explore the idea of Mecho becoming a therapy dog, and joined the St. John Ambulance therapy pet program. Mecho excelled, and Thwaites discovered her own passion for this kind of volunteering. With two children entering adulthood, she had time and vitality on her hands, and was able to devote herself to the activity. “I used to put all of my energy into my kids — now I put it into dogs.”
When the St. John’s Ambulance program folded early last year, Thwaites and others continued to visit the nursing homes and schools where they had developed relationships. She also promptly appealed to Therapeutic Paws of Canada to open a Niagara branch. The process is thorough, the criteria stringent. The group was approved. Thwaites subsequently became team leader in October.
TPOC Niagara dogs are so thoroughly trained and trusted, they are the only ones allowed in Niagara Health hospitals, which they attend daily. “We have to arrive half an hour before our scheduled shift, because everybody stops us — nurses, doctors, security guards, patients — everyone wants to pet the dogs,” says Thwaites. “We visit all the floors including mental health departments and paediatrics.” Only dogs with an IWC (Interaction With Children) certification are allowed in the paediatrics department. “It’s really tough stuff,” says Thwaites. “If that dog isn’t bomb-proof, it doesn’t go through.” And if it does go through, it also goes to schools and reading programs.
“The Story of Mecho” is a small booklet Thwaites has created to work with children who are learning to read. It features simple phrases and amusing photos of the dog in costumes, enjoying the seasons, and doing her work. Reading to or with a dog tends to make learning easier, if only because the children are more relaxed.
They’re also the only therapy pets allowed on the campuses of Brock University and Ridley College, where they typically visit before and during exams, for stress relief for the students.
The group was invited to Ridley to provide emotional support for students when one of their peers died by suicide, and returns on the anniversary of the event to continue to provide comfort.
Thwaites and members of her group will be at Brock for the upcoming Walk for Memories, an Alzheimers Society event on Jan. 27, and for a Bell Let’s Talk mental health event on Jan. 29. Bell Let’s Talk Day, on Jan. 31, is an initiative aimed at eradicating the stigmas surrounding mental illness, and supporting mental health across Canada. TPOC Niagara will be in a dedicated space on the campus with nine dogs and their handlers. “Typically we’ll be visited by 700 to 1,200 people in the two hours we’re there,” says Thwaites. “The kids come in and talk to the dogs. Sometimes they cry, people lie on the floor — one medical student fell asleep for 20 minutes she was so relaxed.”
The therapy dogs visit seniors who may have had to say goodbye to a beloved pet to move into an assisted-living facility — “We provide a much-needed furry cuddle” — and can connect well with patients with dementia. They do end-of-life visits for people who are passing and their loved ones, and therapy visits for people who have endured great losses.
The work is rewarding, and difficult at the same time. “The dogs absorb the energy of the people they help,” says Thwaites with concern. Their handlers are exposed to many emotionally difficult situations as well, so visits are typically limited to one a day, between one and two hours.
Thwaites underwent her own emotionally trying time last year, when Mecho suffered through two separate life-threatening illnesses. But she pulled through, and the pair are continuing their good work. Thwaites feels the experience has made Mecho even more sympathetic to people who are ill or in pain.
Therapy dogs are trained to ignore any food or other edibles — pills on a bedside table in a hospital, for instance. They learn to nudge the arm of someone feeling stress or sadness, and to put their heads in the laps of seated people. The pets have to be unflappable in hospital scenarios like dialysis and chemotherapy treatments, where there are “machines beeping all over the place, and wires and tubes everywhere,” says Thwaites. And where there are also people in need of some unconditional love and a snuggle.
What are the beneficial effects of visiting with a therapy dog? “It really depends on what you’re looking at,” says Thwaites. “For a child who has been bullied, the dog is someone who will listen. For a child who can’t read, or doesn’t speak English well, they’re a non-judgemental partner. In the paediatric ward, kids are scared. They’re in cribs or beds, and when a dog puts its head on the side of their beds, kids just relax.” She tells of non-verbal people spontaneously speaking to the animals.
“Each of these dogs has worked miracles,” she says. “We get letters and cards all the time from grateful people. We’re so passionate about what we do; we really know we’re doing good.”
Thwaites says this is a full-time job for her — and it costs her money, rather than paying her. The work is all volunteer, and members must purchase their own uniform and accessories, including a “uniform” bandana and jacket for the dog.
If you feel your group, institution or event would benefit from visits with therapy dogs, or if you’d like to donate to TPOS Niagara Region, contact Thwaites at firstname.lastname@example.org. To find out more about joining the group, visit tpoc.ca.
Thwaites stresses, “We do not train, we evaluate. To join you have an initial interview, then paperwork, a police check, an evaluation, monitored visits, more paperwork, then, if you are approved, you can join. We have to see you in the community, in classrooms, in a kidney dialysis room. We turn down a lot of dogs because our standards are so high,” she says with pride. There are currently 20 dogs on their roster (two in Niagara-on-the-Lake), with another two pending police and vulnerable sector checks.
“It’s a really gratifying job. To know I made a difference inter lives in really, really cool,” says Thwaites with a thoughtful smile.