Program aims to connect therapy dogs with vulnerable residents

Program aims to connect therapy dogs with vulnerable residents
HALDIMAND—Community paramedic Nicole Selby poses with Mazikeen, a three-year-old female German Shepherd donated to the Wellness Dog Program by Tsaheylu Shepherds in Haldimand County. —Photo submitted by Nicole Selby.

By Mike Renzella

The Haldimand Press

HALDIMAND — Community paramedic Nicole Selby loves dogs. As a volunteer for Therapeutic Paws of Canada, she has seen the many health benefits of connecting people in the community with four-legged friends, and now she is behind an effort to bring those benefits into Haldimand’s newly launched community paramedic program.

“My role as a Community Paramedic is very different from the 911 side of paramedicine,” explained Selby. “We get to take our time and really get to know our clients, diving deeper into their medical issues and playing an active role in their long-term healthcare plan.” 

She says the public response so far has been overwhelmingly positive: “Our clients are so grateful to have a medical professional assessing them on a regular basis and advocating for their medical needs with their own doctors, specialists, support services, and more. Many of our clients are not able to leave their home easily to attend routine medical appointments and procedures, and this provides them with in-home care in many cases.”

As to why properly trained therapy dogs make sense for the program, Selby said, “Dogs have an inherently natural instinct to ‘read the room’, meaning that they pick up on body language and smells that humans release based on stress and emotional levels. The dogs who are best suited for this work will naturally respond to those signals and search out the humans who need them most.” 

She continued, “Dogs are also non-judgmental in a way that humans are not. A dog will not judge you based on what you are wearing, what hairstyle you have, whether you have the most popular social media account, or how smart you are. Many studies have been done to figure out why interacting with a dog makes us feel better. There are some very detailed medical reports that talk about hormone release, tissue response, brain activity, and more … but simply put, dogs and humans have a mutually beneficial connection.”

She called the Community Paramedic Wellness Dog program a “hybrid between service dogs and therapy dogs.”

While the work the dogs will be doing is similar to that of a standard therapy dog, they will do so under the full demands of a service dog, accompanying community paramedics on 12-hour shifts and in more demanding situations than regular therapy dogs typically encounter.

“The dogs who are successful will have proven themselves to be very versatile and tolerant, as well as showing a love for the work. The dogs must possess basic skills and traits including friendliness, calmness, tolerance, obedience, willingness to work, be outgoing, and have the ability to be both friendly with and also ignore other animals.”

Currently, Selby is in the process of training three dogs, plus one backup, who have been selected for inclusion in the program. Recently, one of those dogs was brought to engage with the public during the Dunnville Mudcat Festival. Selby was encouraged by the dog’s performance, noting that it did well with the public, children, other dogs, and the excitement of the event, but that it “still needs some work in a few minor areas.”

“When a dog shows the right skills in all the important areas but is unsure of a few minor things that they have never been exposed to, I am willing to take a bit of time to see if we can train that behavior. If it’s a safety issue, then the dog would be excused from the program. Each dog must be able to work with someone other than their owners, show proficiency in a variety of different tasks and environments, and pass an evaluation specifically designed to draw out any weaknesses or red flags.”

The dogs involved have all been graciously donated by their respective families. They are picked up in the morning and returned home to their families at night. Selby commented on how the dogs are reacting to having jobs like their human companions.

  “The dogs have responded very well, even surprisingly well considering how much is being asked of them. The dogs receive excellent care and also scheduled down time while they are working. We want the dogs to enjoy their job with us and look forward to coming to work.”

She concluded, “That being said, this is not an easy job, and the dogs who are successful are truly special.”