When six-year-old Temba walks into the room, everyone lights up with excitement.
The Tibetan Terrier and his handler, Peter Loring, spend every Tuesday doing something very special – visiting sick children at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax.
“I’m just thrilled every time I see Temba with some of these very, very sick children. How calm and compassionate and how much joy he gives them,” said Loring.
Loring and Temba moved from the United Kingdom to Nova Scotia two years ago and have been volunteering at the hospital for the last year as part of Therapeutic Paws of Canada.
“For me, it’s seeing that I can help the kids and the parents through their day a little bit,” he said.
“When the children are in here for long periods, boredom I would imagine is one of the biggest issues for them and if we can do something to relieve the monotony of being in hospital for long periods, then that’s a good thing.”
Loring says Temba had some basic obedience when they lived in the U.K. but didn’t get certified as a therapy dog until moving to Canada. However, he says his dog has always had a knack for making people feel special.
“I don’t think empathy you can teach to a dog,” said Loring.
“When he was a puppy, we were at a village fair and Temba saw a child with cerebral palsy in a wheelchair and pulled to go over to sit next to this wheelchair and we thought ‘well, this is a bit different’, it’s something we hadn’t seen in any other dog before and then when we came here and started working with some children in schools we worked with some special needs children and Temba just went into a different dimension and that led to working here with sick children.”
Peter and Temba are one of the five therapy dog teams that visit patients at the IWK on a regular basis.
“We’re involved with a number of therapy dog programs in Halifax, Dartmouth and actually right across the country,” said Mark Grant, the team leader for Therapeutic Paws of Canada in Halifax.
“It’s a program that’s designed to offer comfort and support to not only the children that unfortunately in the hospital today but also the parents and the grandparents and everyone involved.”
The IWK says they have volunteer therapy dog programs from both the Therapeutic Paws of Canada and St. John Ambulance.
“It is kind of like our best kept secret. We have had dogs for a number of years here at the IWK,” said Kylene Mellor, manager of volunteer services with the IWK Health Centre.
“What studies have shown is that animals and dogs especially, really have a therapeutic touch to them.”
“For a patient that’s here in the hospital who may be missing their dog at home or they may not have been exposed to dogs, you have this dog that comes in that’s calm, they can pet them, it’s something that’s outside of their ordinary day-to-day here in the hospital and really provide some great distraction and great connection pieces to our patients and their families,” she said.
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Mellor says Temba’s visits give the children something to look forward to.
“It’s something that isn’t a test. It isn’t blood work, it’s not anything kind of poking and prodding at them. It really just is that break.”
The therapy dog program is just one of the many programs that the IWK has in place which relies on volunteers both at the hospital and off-site. In total, the hospital has between 700 and 800 volunteers.
“For example, we have mental health and addictions programs located off-site. We also have therapy dogs and their handlers go to those sites as well,” said Mellor.
“We couldn’t provide some of the extra support and care without our volunteers. Volunteers like Peter who have dedicated not only their time but the time for their dog. The dogs have to be well socialized, they go through a certification process to see if their good around wheelchairs or kids.”