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Rufus helps teens struggling with mental health issues, including depression and anxiety, at a local high school in Orleans. Photo by Julianne Labreche.

“4 Dog Night” supports Ottawa’s hardworking four-legged volunteers

By John McDonald on November 15, 2016

Ottawa Therapy Dogs (OTD), a not-for-profit organization that provides animal-assisted therapy, will host 4 Dog Night: A Musical Dogumentary, on Saturday, November 26, at the Hellenic Centre.

“Good Dogs in Great Music” is the theme for the dinner and dance fundraiser, which includes cocktails, silent and live auctions, and entertainment.

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OTD teams regularly visit more than 60 health care and social services facilities throughout the National Capital region and surrounding communities. Their therapy dogs can be found also in local schools with the R.E.A.D. (Reading Education Assistance Dogs) program, which helps children deal with reading challenges.

The organization currently has nearly 100 active volunteer teams currently, and is aiming to expand. And “teams” is a key word, as Julienne Labreche, an OTD volunteer who is coordinating the fundraising evening, explains.

“Therapy dogs are family pets, all breeds, shapes and sizes, who work with a handler. So we always talk about teams – the handler and dog. Generally speaking, most handlers are the pet’s owner.”

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One such team is Clarence, a Spinone Italianoa, and his handler and owner, Mary Lou Trappitt. They regularly visit the Ottawa Children’s Treatment Centre school, and will be attending 4 Dog Night.

Working as part of a team is one way that therapy dogs differ from service and guide dogs.

“Unlike guide dogs or service dogs, therapy dogs are there to be petted and enjoyed.”

However, while they differ from service and guide dogs, there is no question that they have a positive effect on people.

“I can really see that Clarence helps children take little steps in their rehabilitation programs. He and I make a difference,” says Trappitt.

Ceiligh visit seniors in a local retirement home. Photo by Julianne Labreche.

Ceiligh visit seniors in a local retirement home. Photo by Julianne Labreche.

Labreche agrees. “My own former dog, Paugan, and I worked together in adult rehabilitation. From what I’ve seen, these dogs bring companionship, comfort and motivation. They can sometimes achieve results when other therapies have failed. Therapy dogs can help with issues such as loneliness, anxiety, and stress.”

Owing to the impact that they can have, potential therapy dogs must pass an evaluation process.

“This is done by a trained evaluator, with skills in dog training. The evaluation itself is an extension of the Canine Good Citizenship test. It looks at basic obedience, and also tests for the kind of challenges that might be found in an institutional setting. The evaluators look carefully at the dog’s temperament. They’re looking at the dog’s reaction to noise and distractions, and its ability to deal with busy environments. Does the dog remain calm around a wheelchair, and people with crutches. Does the dog have separation anxiety? Basically, OTD doesn’t want a ‘super dog’, but does want a dog that is good with people and other dogs.” explains Labreche.

And following on with the idea of a team, the handler goes through the evaluation with the dog. Police checks and volunteer interviews are required. If the team passes the evaluation, orientation and mentoring occurs, then a placement is determined based, in part, on the team’s interest and the dog’s ability to do the job. There is further ongoing support.

At the forthcoming fundraising event, the Mary Lou Trappitt and Clarence team will be one of four therapy dog ambassador teams honoured for their volunteer work.

“Each will have their stories told through ‘pairings’ to a piece of music. There is a mixture of live music and recorded. We’ve hired a DJ who loves dogs, of course. The music throughout the evening will span all genres but all will have to do with dogs. It’s amazing, really, how many musicians write about a dog in their life. We’re looking forward to a fun, lively evening that will celebrate good dogs through some great music.”

Tickets to the event are on sale online until November 17th.