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Therapy dogs front and centre at recent police funeral in Barrie

Several canines from St. John Ambulance's therapy dog program were on hand at officers' funeral to try and coax even a slight smile out of people at the heartfelt ceremony

If you attended or watched the funeral ceremonies for slain South Simcoe police officers Morgan Russell and Devon Northrup on Oct. 20 in Barrie, you may have noticed more than a few dogs in attendance.

These were service dogs from St. John Ambulance's therapy dog program.

They were on site at Sadlon Arena to provide stress relief, comfort and to be a calming presence to grieving friends, family and co-workers of the officers, if needed.

Sometimes all it takes to feel a little better is a loving look from those beautiful eyes of the pup, or the connection made while reaching out and caressing those soft ears and fur.

There were approximately a dozen canines of all shapes and sizes from the therapy dog program that were on hand to try and coax even a slight smile out of people at the funeral ceremony.

Theo, a white-haired retriever and one of the lovable canine volunteers that helped out at the local ceremony, knew just how to pull on heart strings as he patiently sat at the feet of a firefighter and gazed up at him waiting to be petted.

The St. John Ambulance therapy dog program reaches out to thousands of people across Canada every day to offer comfort, joy and companionship to members of the community who may be lonely, sick, reside in long-term care or mental health facilities, as well as patients in hospitals, and students and staff at schools. Participants who are visited by these wonderful dogs reap the therapeutic benefits of the unconditional love and companionship of a four-legged friend.

When petting or cuddling with a dog, the benefits of that companionship can result in a wide variety of help for someone, including distraction from pain, relief from stress, greater overall social engagement, and a sense of calmness.

Lynn Kitchen, co-ordinator of the Barrie Therapy Dog Unit for the Barrie, Simcoe and Muskoka Branch of St. John Ambulance, spoke about her dog, Avalon, a 12-year-old collie, who has been a therapy dog since 2014.

“Over the past eight years, Avalon has been visiting retirement and long-term care homes. We’ve visited at workplaces, and the federal government," Kitchen says. “We have also visited elementary schools, colleges and universities — especially during exams, and some of the students are away from their own pet. She regularly visits at the Orillia Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital, providing comfort for patients and people visiting the hospitals as well as the staff.”

Avalon has also received some well-earned honours for her volunteer work as well.

“She was chosen to participate in the St. John Ambulance Day on Parliament Hill in 2015. We’ve received Therapy Team of the Year in 2015, 2016 and 2017,” Kitchen says proudly.

Not even a pandemic could keep Avalon away from making new friends.

“During COVID-19, we did virtual visits by using Zoom on the iPhone. The person at the hospital takes an iPad to the patients for them to see Avalon on the screen. The patients really enjoyed this particularly during the time of isolation. We also visit the paramedics at their home base," she says.

The main reason Kitchen and Avalon visit is to see the smile on everyone’s face when they pet her dog.

“Even if they don’t pet her, the smile on their faces is amazing to see," she says. "Wherever we visit, the staff enjoy it as well.”

The St. John Ambulance therapy dog program is strictly volunteer. They have no government funding and rely on donations to run the program and supply community support.

For information about St. John Ambulance York Region, call 905-773-3394.

If you are interested in learning more about the program, click here

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About the Author: Kevin Lamb

Kevin Lamb picked up a camera in 2000 and by 2005 was freelancing for the Barrie Examiner newspaper until its closure in 2017. He is an award-winning photojournalist, with his work having been seen in many news outlets across Canada and internationally
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