How therapy dogs were silent healers in Humboldt

Thousands of people attended the vigil in Humboldt, Sask., to remember their local fallen heroes on Sunday night.

Mixed amongst the crowd, which was honouring the 15 members of the Humboldt Broncos who were killed when their team bus collided with a semi-truck on Friday, were four teams of therapy dogs.

“They were spaced out, just being available if people needed them,” said Gail Kuhn, who runs the therapy dog program for St. John’s Ambulance in Saskatchewan.

Dr. Colleen Dell and Subie; Justin Morrison and Jet; Wendy Stoeber and Womble; Stephanie Peachey and Dude. H/O St. John Ambulance

One of the dog handlers, Dr. Colleen Dell, said that the dogs were there to provide “love and support” for the people of Humboldt.

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Therapy dogs provide stress relief and distraction from pain, and the mood is simply calmed by their presence.

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“The dog has this empathy that helps calm people down. In times of turmoil and distress, the animal really helps calm the human down,” Irene Valmas, director of communications of Therapeutic Paws of Canada, said.

“People who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, like families or survivors in a situation like this one, will definitely benefit from it because you’re just looking into something filled with love.”

Dell, Research Chair in One Health & Wellness at the University of Saskatchewan, is the research team lead in a study in how the animals are effective. She gave a layman’s view of how the dogs are able to help those in need.

“This is very unscientific but this is the way I talk about it, the dog goes almost immediately straight to your heart and allows you to feel.”

WATCH: Global support pours in as Humboldt begins to heal

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Global support pours in as Humboldt begins to heal

She said there has been very little research done on why the dogs are effective.

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“People haven’t looked at it because we don’t look at animals as helpers, we look at other human beings as helpers,” Dell explained.

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In Humboldt, the dogs and their handlers joined a crisis team at the arena which included psychologists, social workers and paramedics – “whoever else would be available to help,” Kuhn said.

The four dogs were stationed in different areas of the arena. One was on the floor with the families, while another was on the other side of the arena. A third served as a floater dog while the final one was with the youth teams.

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Kuhn said that many of the younger players were struggling to cope with Friday night’s tragic crash.

“Many times, the younger people that were struggling did reach out for the dogs,” she explained. “They were giving hugs and things like that.

“It just helps to ease some of the stress involved without having to say anything.”

Dell explained how her dog was able to help in the situation.

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“There was a young girl who was really crying,” she said.  “I said, ‘Do you want to come see the dog?’ really loudly. And she’s looking at the dog. So I said, ‘Do you want to come and see the dog?

“She can barely breathe because she is crying so hard. And within two minutes, she is not crying. It’s not that she’s happy in any way at all but it allowed her to be in the moment with the dog to kind of refocus herself. And she pet him a little bit, gave him a hug and then she went on with her mom.”

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St John’s Ambulance has teams at the Royal University Hospital, where the casualties were sent following the collision.

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“We generally always have teams assigned there anyways but we ramped it up somewhat,” Kuhn explained. “We have been providing care there with our teams.”

The dogs are stationed at the hospital for everyone who may need help in coping.

“They were used not just for the casualties but for the families and friends that have gathered in the halls that are just waiting to hear about their loved ones,” she said.

“Just having the dog there, it really helps in terms of having that smile, that little bit of ray of sunshine for just a half-a-second in a dark place.”

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The feedback from the staff at the hospital has been good, Kuhn said.

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“Many of the doctors have commented to us how grateful they are, even for the staff.”

This is the first time St John’s Ambulance has sent therapy dogs to a tragic situation like the one in Humboldt.

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The organization’s therapy dog program was instituted over 20 years ago. Dogs were initially sent to hospitals and seniors’ homes.

They are now being used at airports or at universities during exams.

Kuhn says dogs are even sent to libraries to help small children learn to read as well.

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