Singing the praises of Danny Boy

  • March 19, 2010
{mosimage}TORONTO - Danny Boy runs after the red ball, with his golden brown tail wagging from side to side and panting with a doggy-style grin from ear to ear.

The year-old toy poodle is a resident favourite at St. Bernard’s Retirement Residence on Finch Avenue West run by the Missionary Sisters of the Precious Blood .

“We began to see that people, their eyes light up when they see him, especially when people are coming in the beginning because of the life they left behind,” said residence administrator Sr. Francis Bisland.

Moving into a new environment can be stressful, she said.

“Danny Boy has often helped to bridge that gap,” Bisland said.

Five residents gather around a table near the elevator, watching with delight as Danny Boy runs up and down the hall and soaks up all the undivided attention.

Annelori Rietzler, 80, says she gets her morning wake-up call with a bark or two from Danny Boy. Rietzler, who’s been at the residence since 2007, describes Danny Boy as a “very intelligent dog.”

Danny Boy jumps onto her wheelchair and Rietzler pushes Danny down the hall. It’s become a daily morning routine for the two of them.

Bisland said having pets at the residence, including two Russian Blue cats and two budgies, keeps residents healthy and happy. They provide an opportunity for greater social interaction and exercise, she said.

For Mary Ryan, 99, Danny Boy makes her feel “at home.”

“He lifts our spirits and can affect our health,” she said, adding that he reminds her of the joy of having pets before coming to St. Bernard’s.

Josephine Curry, 80, said she likes to take the dog for walks outside.

“(Danny Boy) looks at the trees and leaves. I think he’s almost human,” she chuckles.

“He looks at me and stares for the longest time as if he’s sizing me up or something,” Curry laughs.

Danny Boy’s not an official therapy dog, but he came to stay at the residence after the congregation agreed to have a dog for the 24 residents to keep them company. Bisland said she’s had a positive experience with dogs helping people in the past.

“They’re playful, bring joy and love unconditionally,” she said. “He’s made a tremendous difference in the lives of the residents and is a great comfort for people.”

At Providence Healthcare, therapeutic recreationist Tracey Martin said having the facility’s visiting therapy dog visit every Wednesday at its continuing care and palliative care units helps residents with “reality orientation.” Scheduled programs help some patients realize what day of the week it is, she said.

Some research on pet therapy has also found decreased blood pressure and stress for people visited by pets, Martin said. And pets can provide companionship and increase an individual’s sense of self-worth.

Therapeutic Paws of Canada is a volunteer-run organization that brings about 500 teams of dogs and their handlers into nursing homes, retirement centres and hospitals across Canada. Maxine Dietrich, the organization’s Toronto co-ordinator, said therapy dogs are first evaluated for their temperament and comfort level with people.

Therapy dogs selected for the program can “pick up on the frailties of seniors” and are sensitive to that, she said.

Positive mood changes have come after a dog enters a room, Dietrich said, including with seniors who are very depressed and lonely.

Bisland said St. Bernard’s residents always look forward to Danny Boy’s daily visits.

“He doesn’t know anything but pure love,” she said, “because that’s what he receives here.”

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