By Miguel Amante, Communications Coordinator, Public Affairs
As the popular saying goes, “Every dog has its day”. For Pet Therapy Volunteer Toni Barkston (yes, that’s her full name!), a five-year-old Black Lab mix, and her human owner Gina Kish, that day is Sunday.
For the past three years, Toni and Gina have been visiting CAMH’s inpatient Unit 3-1 every Sunday as part of CAMH Volunteer Services’ Pet Therapy Program. The secure unit, which serves both as a women’s forensic unit, and an acute care unit for male patients with complex mental illness, operates under strict procedural regulations.
On the surface, Toni and Gina’s visits seem simple and straightforward. Toni will spend time with small groups of clients for about 20-30 minutes in the fenced-in courtyard or inside the common areas, where they’re free to interact with Toni in various ways. Some clients opt to play fetch, which Toni is more than eager to accommodate – just don’t expect her to bring the ball back right away. Others feed her treats or help brush her fur when she’s shedding. And others are just happy with the occasional pat on the head.
Toni loves playing fetch
It’s during these designated recreation times where it’s easy to see the significant change in clients’ demeanor.
“One thing we specifically wanted was to have clients interact with Toni out in the yard. If you see our yard, it looks very much like it’s from the correctional model and setting. The women’s unit is a forensic unit, but the men’s unit is not. Having Toni running around in the yard, playing fetch with clients or even just lounging around, helps to normalize it. Her presence makes the environment less institutional,” says Recreation Therapist Margaret Darragh, who has been working at CAMH since 2014, and was instrumental in bringing Toni and Gina to 3-1.
The normalizing effect of having a dog in the unit was not lost on me either. I’ve visited Unit 3 several times before, but during this visit, one client was adamant that they did not want me to bring a camera into the yard, and was initially wary of my presence. But after spending time with Toni and having the shared experience of playing with and caring for the dog, the client’s mood lightened, and they were okay with me using my phone to take photos of Toni. During the session, the client opened up a bit more about their experience at CAMH, and spoke about looking forward to the future after their inpatient stay.
Margaret emphasizes this as one of the more obvious benefits of Pet Therapy at CAMH. “Having Toni around is beneficial as a way to encourage clients to open up… But it also brings a sense of hope for the future, and gives them achievable goals. Some clients will start thinking about pet ownership, and start to plan what it would be like to own a dog, the type of responsibility involved, and what they need to do to get to that point in their life.”
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“I found Toni through an ad on Kijiji, which sometimes isn’t the best place to find a dog… she didn’t come from a great situation but I fell in love with her,” says Gina, who adopted Toni four years ago. “She wasn’t always this great with people – she definitely had some anxiety issues.” But as Toni grew more relaxed in her new surroundings, her personality grew. Gina eventually decided that it would be a good idea to give back to the community and share their time with others. “I thought she’d be great for it… she’s so social, and then I heard about the program here and I was like ‘Yeah, OK’!”
“She loves coming here. When I take the [purple CAMH] bandana out of the book case, she jumps around, goes in circles.” When asked about the certification process that all therapy dogs must undertake, Gina was proud of her pup. “The trainer pulled me aside and told me she passed with flying colours, and we were both like ‘yay!’. I still have her certification up on my fridge.”
“Before I went back to school to take up therapeutic recreation, I worked at a dog daycare. And when I was in school, we learned about the benefits of pet therapy,” recalls Margaret. Her positive experiences with dogs were partly what prompted her to reach out to Volunteer Services to inquire about CAMH’s own Pet Therapy program.
“When you’re staying in a hospital, especially in a unit like ours, there are no opportunities for physical contact. Our clients may also have limited or no contact with family or friends from the outside either. When I see clients give Toni a hug, it fulfills that important human need for physical interaction that we can’t provide.”
Aside from spending time in the unit with Toni, clients who have a hospital pass are encouraged to take the dog for a walk around the Queen Street site.
“Sometimes clients don’t actually want to use their hospital grounds passes, especially on a Sunday when there are fewer things to do or see – the Out of This World Café is closed, Suits Me Fine is closed, there’s less happening in general. Taking a walk with Toni gives them an opportunity to get outside a bit, if even just for quick walk.”
Today, a client named is using his day pass to take time to walk Toni around the hospital premises. “I’ve owned dogs since I was a kid so I’m real comfortable with them Toni’s a good girl.”
“Sometimes, petting her will help clients reminisce about when they had their own dog, or can open up discussions about their past,” adds Margaret, who admits that Pet Therapy is one of the interventions that most clients will participate in if they can.
Ladies & Gentlemen, for one performance only, Toni Barkston performing her hit single, Unbark my Heart…
“It gives clients a meaningful helping role. When they’re in the hospital, they often don’t have these responsibilities, so even the small things like brushing the dog when she’s shedding, giving her water, or taking her for a walk allows them to have that meaningful role and agency. Taking care of a dog can give clients a feeling of empowerment that they otherwise wouldn’t get. There have also been times when clients are agitated and escalated, and when they see Toni, they’ll attempt to regulate their own emotions so they don’t scare her.”
Toni’s presence isn’t just for the clients’ benefit, however, and Margaret makes sure staff are also able to spend brief moments with the dog if they choose.
“Seeing clients interact with the dog is normalizing for our staff. It’s a good reminder of roles we have outside of work, which are different from the hats we wear as clinicians. Many of us are pet owners, parents, and just regular people outside of CAMH. It gives clients and clinicians a shared experience.”
Margaret even commended some staff members who go above and beyond to accommodate their furry friend. “Some of them go out of their way to see Toni. Susan (Taylor), a nurse in our unit, will even come to work on Sundays with special ice cream-shaped dog treats for Toni. Some of our staff really love having her around.”
“Self-care is so important. I always knew when requesting a therapy dog that they should also be available to staff. When Toni is passing by the nursing station, and a nurse stops by to pet her, we make sure that we don’t rush them through.”
There’s no bone to pick here – whether you’re a client or clinician, there’s merit in pet therapy, and bringing a dog to ‘heal’ is a trick that isn’t hard to teach.