Harley and his handler, Anna Favuzza, make regular visits to Providence Healthcare in Toronto to brighten the lives of patients like Mary Walsh. Photo by Mickey Conlon

Therapy dogs bring some comforting four-legged medicine into the lives of hospital patients

  • March 6, 2019

When Harley travels the halls at Providence Healthcare, he gets the rock star treatment.

Everyone wants a piece of the mixed-breed Bijon-Coton de Tulear dog. People stop in their tracks, both patients and staff, to share a friendly word with Harley. And he laps it up.

Anna Favuzza has seen how much a furry, four-legged friend can help a person recover from illness or a traumatic accident. For four years now, she and Harley have worked together to boost the spirits of people incapacitated and confined to a hospital bed at Providence.

As part of the St. John Ambulance pet therapy program, Favuzza and five-year-old Harley make the rounds of the Toronto rehab hospital bringing a smile to faces and taking, if only for a short time, a patient’s mind off of why they are there.

Favuzza and Harley are an integral part of a healing program that Providence has used for 20 years. They are one of nearly 3,000 therapy dog teams across Canada that in 2013 (the last year statistics were available) spent more than 200,000 hours visiting hospitals, retirement homes, care facilities, schools and universities.

Few things can brighten up a stay in the hospital. Favuzza knows this all too well. It was not that long ago she was in the same situation. A 2009 car accident left her with serious head trauma. Several months of daily therapy ensued with a speech pathologist, a rehabilitation therapist and a cognitive therapist among other specialists who retrained her brain to communicate with the rest of her body to complete the simple tasks she had taken for granted.

Favuzza was able to return to her job on a modified work schedule, but was unable to keep up with the task and “very reluctantly I had to step away from my position.” 

“I had to find something that gave me purpose again and made me feel like I was contributing to society,” she said.

She was introduced to pet therapy. She had a young dog, Harley, who was easy to train and the program made sense to her.

“I would go visit individuals undergoing the same type of treatments or experiences I had already been through and I could empathize and relate to their journeys,” she said. “It’s as therapeutic to me as it is to the patients I visit…. This program is an integral part of our lives and specifically my ongoing healing.”

You can see what she means when Harley makes a stop in the room of Theresa-Sara Bell. A smile crosses her face from ear to ear as Harley snuggles up to Bell on her bed. It’s a scene repeated with all the patients Favuzza and Harley visit.

The pet therapy program is a free community service provided by St. John Ambulance since 1992. The specially-trained four-legged volunteers have become a popular and fruitful way of comforting the sick and lonely and those in need of a friendly face at a time it is most needed.

The training for a therapy dog is not quite as rigorous as a service dog  — trained to help the blind, the deaf or those with other disabilities — but the dog has to be at least a year old, well behaved and enjoy being petted by strangers. These dogs can’t be startled by sudden noise or a disturbance, must be able to walk confidently by their handlers’ side and not be easily excitable or frightened by items common in hospitals or a nursing home like canes, walkers or wheelchairs.

Providence staff sing the praises of the program. 

“It’s the social aspect that is really beneficial,” said Charissa Choi, therapeutic recreationist at Providence Healthcare. “Dogs have this presence which reduces anxiety. It brings happiness to the patients.”

The other hospitals under the Unity Health banner, St. Michael’s Hospital and St. Joseph’s Health Centre, also use the program, which Choi said has proven beneficial to patients caught up in a very taxing circumstance.

“It brings happiness to patients and it also gives them a sense of hope,” said Choi. “In the midst of the hospital process it can be very taxing, very hard. People want to head home, it’s their goal, and it’s tough to go through a different process of the hospital, appointments. So it’s a break in the midst of everything. They can have that calm and meet an animal that makes them happy.” 

Choi sees people open up about their experiences and memories and develop a social connection with a newfound friend. When Favuzza and Harley meet Stephen Gallant, he begins to recall his dog as he interacts with Harley. That’s the comfort, greater social engagement and stress relief Choi is talking about, and the distraction from what has brought them there.

“I work with patients who are highly anxious and sometimes have gone through traumatic experiences,” said Choi. “When the dog comes in it’s a different energy that I feel. They are pleasant and calm in that moment. (The interaction) allows people to open up more and allows people to have a conversation.

“They’re able to build that rapport and that relationship and it really brightens up their day,” she said.

Favuzza witnesses scenes like this on a weekly basis, “all with the thread of love and caring woven through it.” She recalls one patient in particular, a very elderly man who wouldn’t leave his bed — until Harley entered the room. The man would light up and Harley was his reason for getting up.

“When the hospital staff wanted to get him up out of bed and moving around he would only comply when he could hold on to Harley’s leash,” said Favuzza. “The dog made all the difference. He gave this gentleman a reason to go for a walk.”

As therapeutic as it is for Favuzza, she can sense Harley — whose been part of the therapy dog program since he was a year old — understands what he is there to do, and he does it well.

“Harley puts on his work face as soon as the St. John scarf goes on. He knows his role is to comfort and soothe,” she said.

Beyond the patients, therapy dogs also calm the caregivers dealing with the stress of a demanding job. 

Choi enjoys the interaction. More than just checking on how the visits are going, seeing Harley brings her relief. 

“Cuddle with them, pet them. It’s a type of stress relief and it’s very calming, and then you can go on for the rest of your day and be recharged,” said Choi.

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