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London therapy dogs now making digital visits

April 5, 2020

Some of London’s most beloved dogs have resumed their roles bringing cheer to seniors, students, hospital patients and emergency dispatch workers amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The St. John Ambulance therapy dog program is harnessing the power of technology, using Zoom and FaceTime, to do virtual visits with clients across the city.

The popular video-conferencing services have allowed the program’s nearly 80 volunteers and their four-legged friends to reconnect with their regular clients, program coordinator Terry Power said.

“This is usually our busiest time of the year heading into finals at Western. Then, right after that we’re getting ready for finals at high school. That’s just on top of our regular nursing home visits, which are always ongoing,” Power said.

“This is a really hard time for everyone.”

Mental health advocates have been warning of psychological fallout from the COVID-19 as the virus leaves many people stuck indoors, socially isolated and cut off from their everyday routines.

Calls to two London mental health crisis lines have jumped 43 per cent and 50 per cent from a month ago because of anxiety over the pandemic, a director with Canadian Mental Health Association Middlesex recently said.

Prior to the outbreak of the coronavirus, the St. John Ambulance service dogs – ranging in size from a six-pound Miki to a 140-pound great Pyrenees-Bernese mountain dog cross – made regular visits to 40 locations across London including nursing homes, mental-health programs, Ronald McDonald House, CPRI and library branches. Clients would pet, cuddle and spend time with the canines.

The volunteer-run program, established more than 25 years ago, also does 160 special request visits a year, Power said.

“For all of our volunteers, they do this because they know the difference they can make in people’s lives,” she said. “So, it’s really hard for them to know that at a time when we’re probably most needed, we can’t get out there and do it (in-person).”

Using technology, dog owners are able to schedule video calls which allow people to log on to the call and see and talk to the dog and its owner.

The volunteer dog owners also are happy to send email updates, including photos of their pets, to clients, Power said.

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