The halls of Health Sciences Centre (HSC) Winnipeg are usually bustling with staff, patients and visitors as they work, seek care, or boost the spirits of loved ones at Manitoba’s most specialized, tertiary hospital. While much changed at HSC throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps most noticeable was the significant decline in foot traffic across campus as visitor access was restricted and staff congregating in the halls and common areas were discouraged. COVID precautions meant the normally busy corridors were suddenly quiet, with no weekly markets, staff pot-lucks, or groups gathered for coffee or lunch.
Gone were many of the activities and distractions that allowed health care workers to escape from the pressures of their day, even for a moment.
Recently, thanks to the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program, a welcome distraction has returned to the halls of HSC. Tell-tale clicking alerts staff to the approach of furry, four-legged visitors and their human companions, bringing staff a much-needed morale boost and many welcome cuddles.
“When I walk onto the units, staff immediately ask if I have brought a dog with me. They’re very excited that the organization has made this possible,” said Karen Burgess, Clinical Nurse Specialist, Mental Health, and Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) Clinical Lead at HSC. “Programs like this are what our team is about – helping staff navigate through stressful and crisis situations. With the addition of the dogs, there was an immediate, positive impact on staff stress levels,” added Burgess.
CISM works to support staff in working in stressful situations common across the health care system; however, the stresses of the pandemic brought new – and prolonged – challenges, resulting in the team adopting new interventions.
Working with infection prevention and control, the HSC CISM team reached out to the certified volunteers and therapy dogs at St. John Ambulance to see what might be possible.
“The response has been tremendous. Instantly, 49 dog therapy volunteers replied that they wanted to be involved,” said Burgess.
HSC has seen the benefit of this intervention throughout the pandemic’s third wave. During the first week of the intervention, there were approximately 330 interactions with staff. Now seven weeks into the program, HSC is seeing around 600 interactions weekly.
“Even staff who were skeptical at first say that it’s working and they can see it,” said Burgess.
The St. John Ambulance therapy dogs and their volunteer handlers work throughout the province, bringing comfort, joy and companionship to people who reside in long-term care and mental health facilities and visit schools and hospitals.
“You can feel the energy in the room change,” said Rebecca Misko, a dog therapy volunteer with St. John Ambulance, as she lovingly stroked her mixed-breed dog, Sunny. As a staff member approached, Sunny rolled over so they could scratch her belly.
Rescued with her puppies from a Northern Manitoba community by Spirit of Hope Rescue, Sunny was placed into foster care and later adopted by Misko’s family, where she has lived for five years.
“She loves doing this. She’s a natural with people and is just happy to be petted.”
The effect of the dogs on staff has been overwhelmingly positive. Frequently, HSC has noticed that vacant shifts quickly fill up when staff know a dog is visiting.
“That’s pretty powerful,” said Burgess, adding that reports have shown a significant reduction in staff stress levels. “The program is working. People say it’s the highlight of their day.”
A testament to the therapeutic benefit of the dogs, Misko remembers one particular interaction vividly.
“We were visiting with a resident with advanced Alzheimer’s who was quite rigid. When we placed their hand on Sunny, it was like letting air out of a balloon. Their whole body instantly relaxed,” she said.
Some of the dogs are also trained in other areas aside from therapy.
“She can search for different odours – just like a bomb dog does,” said John Moehring, dog therapy volunteer with St. John Ambulance and owner of Haley, an Australian Shepherd and Saint Bernard cross.
Rescued 12 years ago near Selkirk, Manitoba, Haley was very sick when the Moehring family adopted her.
“She had gastric problems, respiratory problems…you name it, and she had it,” said Moehring, as Haley looked up at him with her tail happily thumping against the floor. “It cost a lot to fix her up, and she’s just turned into an amazing dog. She loves people.”
From the beginning, Haley has also shown an affinity for children.
“You can see kids really open up to her, especially the ones that won’t talk to adults. Dogs are non-judgmental,” said Moehring. “Even in hospitals, you see the change in people. It amazes me how much of a difference it makes.”
The dog therapy program at HSC continues to grow. On different days, between three and eight dogs visit staff and patients in various areas across the facility.
“This program brings joy to the clinical day,” Burgess added. “People are happier and more settled, which can impact patient care in a very positive way.” During these times of uncertainty, HSC is pleased to continue to offer this intervention, among others, to its staff. Plans are underway to make the program a permanent offering in addition to the other supports offered to staff.