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Dog therapy program at St. John Ambluance gets two paws up

'Every dog is different, every dog brings a different energy and a different personality to the role'

Life can be rough, but therapy dogs in the St. John Ambulance program are here to help provide comfort and support for Cambridge residents.

"I think everybody talks about the non-judgmental aspect of the dog. They really don't care what your situation is, and are going to come and be with you and be physically next to you," said Heather Leong, therapy dog coordinator for St. John Ambulance, Cambridge.

"Even just the warmth of their fur, you know how soft they are, and it's just a creature looking at you and 100 per cent paying attention to you while you're interacting with it, I could go on and on."

Started in 1992 in Peterborough, Ont., this year marks the 25th anniversary of the therapy dog program in Cambridge and 30 years within St. John Ambulance. Recently, the program has resumed evaluations for new therapy dogs in hopes of meeting the demand for services after the pandemic.

"The dogs when they go through their first evaluation, their first intake, they're prepared to visit in adult situations and seniors, and so, they visit once a week, so that's the ideal. Visits are about an hour long, and essentially, you're making a relationship with the people that are at those homes and they get to know the dog," said Leong.

Locally, therapy dogs and red-shirt volunteers can be spotted at a hospital or in retirement homes, but you might also see them at schools, libraries, universities, courthouses, group homes and corporate wellness events. Provincially, St. John Ambulance therapy dogs were also at the Pan-Am Games and the Invictus Games. Sometimes, the dogs are brought in to help comfort others in a time of crisis.

Leong started with the program in 2004 as a volunteer with her shih tzu named Mushi. Leong and her husband noticed how much the dog enjoyed interacting with people, and she learned about the therapy dog program through someone at her work who was a St. John Ambulance volunteer.

"I had never heard of it before, so I joined here in Cambridge, this is the only branch I belong too, and I tested with Mushi and so we did that for two years, and in 2006, there was an opportunity to take on the role of the coordinator and that's what I've been doing since 2006," said Leong. 

As the coordinator, Leong said her favourite part is taking a new team that has gone through the evaluation process visiting for the first time, and supporting and coaching them through the whole thing.

"I've seen every breed that you can imagine and I get that little, heart-warming moment just watching a new team have that experience and seeing how the dogs brought a smile to someone's face," said Leong. "Even just watching the dogs interact with people, and how quickly they sense why they're there and what they're supposed to do, it's really neat."

Sandy Harris and Pat Ireland are long-term volunteers who each have two dogs in the program. The two volunteers are also therapy dog evaluators and help evaluate dogs for the program at St. John Ambulance chapters across Ontario.

Initially, Harris and Ireland note therapy dogs only visit hospitals and retirement residences in the beginning of the program, but the role of the therapy dog has diversified since, including virtual visits earlier in the pandemic.

"One of the ladies sat and patted the tablet when it was her turn," Pat said about the experience. "She never wanted to give it back, she said that no, she wasn't finished."

Both agree their dogs love visiting and they love to share their dogs with others. Harris said she started the program with her former dog, Brandy, who was tested as a therapy dog around the time the program in Cambridge began.

"It just stuck with it because I love it and I believe in it," said Harris. "I find it so rewarding to go into nursing homes."

"Me too, and I hope one day when I get older and if I wind up in a nursing home, that there are dogs to visit me," adds Ireland.

The St. John Ambulance therapy dog program is in a rebuilding phase and is looking for more volunteers. As an evaluator, Harris said successful therapy dogs are well socialized and should like people. Those who think their dog could be a good fit can learn more about the role at