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‘It’s beautiful to see’: Virtual pet therapy comforts B.C. long-term care residents during COVID-19

Click to play video 'Virtual pet therapy for seniors provides window into dog’s world during COVID-19' Virtual pet therapy for seniors provides window into dog’s world during COVID-19
Two very special volunteers at a B.C. long-term care home are providing virtual pet therapy to residents amid COVID-19 restrictions. Kristen Robinson reports – Jan 24, 2021

When COVID-19 visitor restrictions halted pet therapy sessions at Vancouver’s Mount Saint Joseph Hospital last spring, Stuart Mah and his dog Nugget worked with staff to find a way to give long-term care home residents a virtual window into their world.

Read more: How pets are helping residents of one B.C. seniors’ home get through COVID-19

Mah rescued his 100-pound Rottweiler-German Shepherd-Labrador-cross from northern B.C. seven years ago, and right away he knew the gentle giant was special.

“Nugget is such a caring and giving dog,” Mah told Global News.

“I wanted to share him with as many people as possible.”

Mah enrolled his canine in pet therapy training with BC Pets and Friends. Once Nugget passed all his exams in 2017, the pair started volunteering with the 100 residents of Mount Saint Joseph Residence.

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“He definitely demonstrates that he gives unconditional love and a lot of the residents feel that,” Mah said.

Read more: Online visits with therapy dogs offering comfort during coronavirus pandemic

English is not the first language of most of the residents and Mah doesn’t speak Cantonese – but through Nugget, he found a way to connect with them.

“There seems to be a very universal language when it comes to using a dog or Nugget as a conduit to that.”

Mah said he’ll never forget how one resident locked eyes with his dog during a pre-COVID-19 encounter in a private room – and that memory is what motivates him to continue giving back to the community.

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“It was almost mesmerizing in terms of how she looked at Nugget,” recalled Mah.

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“She would pet Nugget and I can see on her face that she had just beautiful eyes, and all I would see was Nugget staring at her eyes and her staring at Nugget’s eyes – and it’s something that I wish I had a camera.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic cut off these visits, Mah feared that connection would be lost.

Read more: Visitation restrictions in B.C. long-term care homes could ease by mid-March: province

Instead, he and hospital staff saw a window of opportunity online.

St. Paul’s Foundation donors helped with the purchase of iPads and Mah and Nugget are now dialling up their elderly fans once a week via FaceTime.

“I’m watching the residents touch the screen as if they’re touching Nugget,” Mah said.

“It just it really warms my heart to see that.”

Mary Gallop, the hospital’s volunteer resources coordinator, said the residents eagerly await what’s become known as “Stuart and Nugget’s Day”.

“You can see the residents smile sometimes, you hear laughter – it’s so heartwarming.”

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Read more: Vancouver International Airport helps travellers to manage stress with dog therapy program

Both she and Mah know nothing can replace hands-on contact but say a virtual face-to-face is a pretty good second choice.

“Our elders have lost so much,” Gallop told Global News.

“Personal losses, loss of visitation ability with their loved ones, and this just helps really fill that gap.”

Nugget will celebrate his 10th birthday in July, and Mah said he hopes they can resume in-person visits once it’s safe to do so.

For now, the pet therapy team will look forward to seeing their senior friends clap and cheer for them via video every week.

“It’s truly beautiful to see,” Mah said.