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‘He just loves to be around people’: Therapy dogs resume visits as pandemic restrictions ease

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It’s been a “terrible” 18 months for Derby the therapy dog.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic brought many things to a grinding halt in March 2020, including the St. John Ambulance therapy dog program in Thunder Bay.

The dogs, which used to routinely visit places like long-term care homes and schools, had to stay home with the rest of the world. It stayed that way, with the exception of some outdoor visits, until earlier this year when four therapy dog teams were able to have their first indoor visit back to the Thunder Bay police station.

Sharon Wynn, Derby’s owner, said the pandemic has been hard for the 10-year-old, 70-kilogram Newfoundland and huskie mix.

Derby, a St. John Ambulance therapy dog in Thunder Bay, is a 10-year-old, 70-kilogram Newfoundland and husky mix. Owner Sharon Wynn says Derby missed people able to go out and meet new people during the pandemic. (Matt Vis/CBC)

“Terrible, terrible,” Wynn said when asked about what the last 18 months had been like for Derby. “When we started having outside visits he gave me so much attitude because that’s not how we went to work.

“I think it makes them feel and good and I think all the extra attention they get helps too. He just loves to be around people.”

A therapy dog is different than a service dog, said Jill Biggs, the coordinator of the Thunder Bay and northwestern Ontario program.

“[Therapy dogs] have to be gentle. They have to like people. They have to seek attention,” Biggs said. 

“They’re happiest when they go up to people and get to cuddle and get a pet with them. They’re wonderful, outgoing dogs that want to share their patience and their heart with everybody else.”

Verlie Breitsprecher said the isolation was also really challenging for her and her dog Reba, a 10-year-old poodle.

“It was really tough. I felt, and Reba as well, felt that we didn’t have a purpose in life anymore. We sat around. We went and walked around in the neighbourhood. The neighbourhood wasn’t enough. We visited family but that wasn’t enough. She likes to get out and she’s the ultimate schmoozer. She loves her job.” 

Reba is a 10-year-old standard poodle. (Matt Vis/CBC)

Biggs said the program had about 50 dogs in Thunder Bay and the region before the pandemic, but some have not been able to continue.

“The program has certainly lost dogs over the past 18 months,” she said. A lot of the dogs, they’re older dogs. If ones were 11 at the time the pandemic hit, then most of them have had to be retired.”

Biggs said the hope is to have evaluations in the coming months to add new dogs to the program.

Marian Ryks-Szelekovszky said being part of the program means just as much to her as to her dog Enya, an 11-year-old sheltie.

“It is absolutely heartwarming,” she said. 

“For me it was a life changing experience that I was able to do it. I had lost my husband and it was just the most wonderful way that I could go back and meet people. For Enya, it was so wonderful. It’s so heartwarming to watch people’s reactions to her.” 

Enya is an 11-year-old shetland sheepdog. Owner Marian Ryks-Szelekovszky says Enya spent months during the pandemic, sitting in front of a closet holding the St. John Ambulance uniform and crying. (Matt Vis/CBC)

Ryks-Szelekovszky said Enya, who for months during the pandemic would sit in front of a closet that held the St. John Ambulance uniform and cry, was immediately excited about getting back out.

“Even when I put the scarf on her and put her in the truck, she’s barking the entire way to the police station,” she said.

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