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Baycrest’s pet therapy program provides comfort to clients

WATCH ABOVE: Baycrest Health Sciences has been successfully running a pet therapy program that’s helping those with Alzheimer’s and dementia feel more comfortable communicating their needs and feelings. Susan Hay has the Story in this week’s Making a Difference.

TORONTO — Baycrest Health Sciences is a global leader in geriatric residential living, with a special focus on brain health and aging.

For more than 20 years, the volunteer services department at Baycrest has been coordinating a pet therapy program for residents living with cognitive impairment such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Once a week, these adorable pet therapy visitors have been making lives better through unconditional love.

“I think dogs bring such a special piece to what we do on a daily basis and really add value to the services we provide,” said Karen Hirshfeld, the manager for therapeutic recreation at Baycrest.

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Victor Zuckerman’s father, Morris, is a client at Baycrest. Zuckerman was unaware of the love his father had for dogs until he met Lucy, a 13 year-old poodle.

“My dad was diagnosed with dementia about 10 years ago. When he has stimulus such as music or these pet therapy dogs, they evoke memories and they bring back the past,” said Zuckerman.

“My dad reacts very very strongly to Lucy in terms of emotion … He lights up! If my dad is having a bad day and sees Lucy, it’s a good day.”

Both the owners and their pets are put through testing to ensure they have a calm demeanour. After being certified by St. John’s Ambulance or Therapeutic Paws of Canada, volunteers and their therapy pets are selected for the program.

“I went through an orientation program, and then Lucy had to go through testing where they made sure that she was not distracted by wheelchairs or walkers,” saidVicky Wylson-Sher, a Baycrest volunteer.

“She was very gentle with people and didn’t mind being touched and petted, and she passed with flying colours.”

Hirshfeld said that studies show that dogs have had a really positive impact on clients with dementia or who have cognitive impairment.

“We’ve seen from studies the difference in behaviours as well as that positive emotion,” she said.

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“We’ve seen people who weren’t communicating … all of a sudden, speak.”

Mark Mincer, a volunteer with the Pet Therapy Program, owns a four-year-old husky named Ace.

Mark said that his experience at Baycrest is “really rewarding.”

“I get to meet people and see the changes in them,” said Mincer. “And I get to see what my dog can do to help improve their day”.

The Baycrest Foundation’s annual Dogs on the Catwalk fundraiser supports pet therapy and the volunteer department. They have raised nearly $35,000 and have an ultimate goal of $75,000.

The event will take place on Oct. 20. For more information, visit their website.

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