Jenny Smith’s dog Wilson was literally born and bred to help others. “He’s an Australian Labradoodle,” says Jenny. “The breed was created to make a therapy dog that was hypoallergenic. And he looks like a big teddy bear!” Together, with Jenny’s longstanding commitment to volunteering, they are a powerful force for good.
As a volunteer with St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog program, Jenny and Wilson have dedicated time in Sunnybrook’s Dorothy Macham Home with Veterans who have advanced dementia. When the pandemic hit, she and Wilson pivoted to providing virtual visits to those in Sunnybrook’s inpatient psychiatry unit.
“I was a little worried about how Wilson and the patients would interact on camera, but with some tips from other St. John handlers, decided to try it. I discovered if I placed a treat in front of the iPad, Wilson sat patiently, optimistically looking directly into the camera. After the first session, I could see how well it was working. Someone who was really struggling on the other side of the screen was interacting with us and smiling. I provide a list of questions for patients to promote conversation, show them pictures of Wilson as a puppy and Wilson does a few tricks. One of the favourite questions is, ‘what is something funny Wilson has done?’ When they find out he has helped himself to an entire pizza that was left on the counter for my son’s lunch, we share a good laugh. At the end of the visit, I hear from many patients that we have made their day. In turn for mine, I feel the same.”
Jenny says volunteering with Wilson allows for a unique point of connection. “The patients and I often talk about their own pets, or sometimes one they have lost which can evoke a lot of emotion. We talk about how having a dog can help their path to recovery by getting them out for walks and opening them up social interaction with other dog owners or dog lovers that stop for a visit. Many are interested to learn how they can become involved in volunteer therapy dog programs with their own pets.”
Jenny usually spends between five to 15 minutes with each patient, and volunteers weekly. With a love of art, Jenny also draws sketches of Wilson on postcards and sends them to patients she has connected with as a touching memento of their time together.
“I’m trying to give someone a positive break or moment in their day. Personally, I feel volunteering has also improved my own happiness.” Jenny says National Volunteer Week is a reminder that the time and efforts of volunteers everywhere are impactful and worthwhile. “I get a lot of satisfaction by helping others.”
Sunnybrook is grateful to have wonderful, dedicated volunteer therapy dog teams working with patients and residents on all our campuses from St. John Ambulance and Therapeutic Paws of Canada.