Get Healed by a Dog

therapy

Jeff Thomson with Skybear

By Gagandeep Ghuman
Published: Sept 13, 2015

valley

Valley Calderoni with Kaoru

SHE can give without hoping to get, she can soothe anxious nerves with a touch and her simple, eyes half-closed look can remind you that life isn’t happening elsewhere.
She has lived this life for 10 years, out of which five have been given to teaching humans the value of here and now, the need for trust and in the process lowered their cortisol and enhanced their serotonin levels. At the Four Ave home of her companion, Jeff Thompson, Skybear may strike you as just another dog enjoying a lazy weekend on the front yard.
But Skybear is no ordinary dog, not on the weekdays when she is at her job spreading love and happiness among the guests at the Chopra Treatment Centre in Paradise Valley. Skybear is a Certified Therapy Dog who works alongside Thompson at the Chopra Centre to ease frayed nerves. A soft-spoken man with a calming presence, Thompson works as a counsellor at the Chopra Treatment Centre helping people with group therapy and psychodrama, using theatre to explore life’s truths. It was while working as a counsellor in downtown Vancouver that Thompson first realised how effective therapy dogs can be. 
Thompson had never had a dog but when his ex-girlfriend offered him Skybear, he agreed to take her in. Found on a street in Santa Fe, Skybear was sent to Squamish’s Canine Valley Education Centre where she was quick to learn to be calm around other dogs.
“She had a tremendous interest in social interaction with humans but she could also be non-intrusive and yet very affectionate,” said Thompson, explaining why he thought Skybear could make for a good therapy dog.
After more training and passing a test for obedience and temperament administered by West Coast Assistance Team, Skybear was official certified as a therapy dog.
As the name suggests, a therapy dog is used to provide affection and comfort to people in hospitals, nursing homes, schools, hospices and retirement homes. There are several studies pointing out the benefic effects of therapy dogs. And at the Chopra Centre, Thompson sees similar research unfold in real time. When a participant displays anxiety or a strong emotion, Skybear will go sit close to that person and nuzzle up against them.
“She will sit right beside them and press her head into their legs and give them a safe, loving touch. She is a safe place where they can put their affection and that can help them to feel calm,” he said.
With gentle demeanour, Skybear also serves as a model and a bridge to re-establish trust in human relationships. And her unconditional love is empowering for those who may have gone unloved in the human world. Skybear is excited to see people but she isn’t fidgety or nervous. Thompson says she doesn’t hold on to grudges and lives in the present, a powerful lesson that helps people to stay more grounded in their lives.

At the Canine Valley Education Centre, Valley Calderoni is training a Kaoru (pronounced kah-oh-roo) to become a therapy dog. Kaoru is being trained in a program that will enable her to work with the elderly, children with disabilities, people diagnosed with cancer, children at kindergartens and preschools, people with dementia, and children and adults with autism. The goal is to train her to have a calming effect on the people by translating high emotional energy into a low-intensity situation. The dog’s ability is tied to our physiological ability to feel good.
“Our bodies are made of intricate series of neuro pathways, highways of neurons connected to one another. When we repeat certain emotions or behaviours our neuro pathways are strengthened and we can get stuck in that cycle. Dogs have the ability to break these neuropathways and help us feel good,” says Valley.
Kaoru has participated in many activities to help people, from visiting the elderly, children and adults with disabilities and autism, and helping students learn dog safety and communication at MishMash Preschool in Squamish. By the end of this year, she will be a fully certified therapy dog.
“It is such an incredibly rewarding experience to watch Kaoru use her body language and her energy to create a state of peacefulness that is contagious,” Valley says.