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Therapy dogs provide virtual comfort

April 21, 2020

Toronto resident Ken Berger and his bulldog Victoria have a little more time on their hands these days than they normally would.

They are volunteers with the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program and, before the COVID-19 pandemic, would often spend their days visiting seniors in long term care homes.

“We would go and spend an hour or two visiting with residents,” Berger told CTV News Toronto. “The folks would sit around and we’d share stories, the folks would come up to her and pet her.”

Now, like most people, Berger and Victoria the dog are staying home.

“It’s been a loss for us as teams, and of course it’s been a loss for those who we visit,” Berger said.

The St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog program allows dogs and their owners to visit Canadians who may be sick, lonely or in need of a friendly visit.

With physical distancing guidelines in place and the absence of face-to-face visits, St. John Ambulance decided to create a “digital library” of dog videos.

“We came up with the idea of a YouTube channel to host video letters in a way, so that people could kind of profile their therapy dog in a way for the residents to watch,” Heather Leong, therapy dog coordinator for St. John Ambulance, said.

“There are over 100 videos there that were directed initially for our residents in long term care homes, but obviously anyone can enjoy them.”

The videos range from comforting to funny, and include sequences of the dogs going for walks or playing in their backyards. Leong says one video shows a dog doing a little fashion show.

“I’ve heard that the videos are being well-received and really appreciated by the homes,” she told CTV News Toronto. “The response has been enormous. I can barely keep up with the videos that are coming in. It’s been awesome.”

Berger made a video of Victoria, the bulldog, playing with her favourite ball, and that they both enjoyed making a clip for a virtual visit.

“I think it’s one more attempt to bring some levity to what has become the most incredible, otherworldly experience of most of our lives,” he said. “It’s totally filling a void.”

And while Berger admits that a video isn’t quite the same as an in-person visit, he hopes the digital library will provide comfort to those feeling isolated.

“We’re missing you and we hope we get to see you real soon,” he said, holding Victoria up for the camera.

“We’re going to do whatever we can to help, and to distract! Frankly, dogs act as a tremendous, fun distraction.”

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