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Virtual Pet Therapy Program brings joy, comfort to patients during COVID-19

Caileigh, the virtual therapy dog.

Caileigh, the six-year-old Irish setter is The Ottawa Hospital’s first virtual therapy dog.

Therapy dog Caileigh and her owner, Christine Phillips, get ready to visit patients at The Ottawa Hospital.  But this is no ordinary visit – it’s a virtual one.

The Virtual Pet Therapy Program at The Ottawa Hospital began in September.  Instead of appearing at a patient’s bedside, Christine and six-year-old Irish Setter Caileigh appear on a tablet attached to a specially-adapted IV pole. During the visit, patients laugh, clap and interact with Caileigh in much the same way they would in person. 

There was some skepticism at first about whether The Ottawa Hospital’s Pet Therapy Program could adapt well to a virtual environment.

Virtual Pet Therapy, therapy dog, COVID-19
Volunteer Christine Phillips and her therapy dog, Caileigh, visit patients at The Ottawa Hospital safely by interacting with them virtually on a tablet.

“To be honest, I wasn’t terribly optimistic about how well it would work because the therapy dog experience is tactile,” said Christine. “It’s about warmth.  It’s about two-way communication between the client and the dog. And of course none of that is relevant when you have two iPads talking to each other.” 

But it didn’t take long for her to get on board.

“The fact that we’ve got such a positive response from patients just speaks to how powerful that bond is between animals and humans,” she said.  “It’s not as good as an in-person visit, but in the absence of that opportunity, it’s really quite amazingly effective. 

Ulyana Osorio, Coordinator, Volunteer Resources, Civic Campus, helped organize the pilot project. She saw the effect it has had on patients.

Osorio recalled, “Right away patients started talking to the dog.  ‘oh, you’re such a good boy,’ they’d say.  They’d ask Christine questions, and Caileigh would start doing tricks. It’s a different interaction from one they would have in the hospital, but it still has so much impact.  I cried.  As soon as they see the dog on the screen, you can see the patient’s face light up.  It was worth every moment.”

“As soon as they see the dog on the screen, you can see the patient’s face light up.”

Jette Haswell, a social worker at The Ottawa Hospital helps match patients with the volunteers. Some of the patients she works with have had a stroke or an acquired brain injury, but most have some form of dementia or other cognitive impairment. 

“We found the whole thing more powerful and more meaningful than we anticipated,” she said. “It gives our patients an opportunity to reflect on their love of animals and share memories of their dogs. They are in the moment with Caileigh and interact with her.  It’s a way to bring a little piece of joy to their life.”

Haswell has noticed that interacting with the therapy dog and their owner has helped more withdrawn patients come out of their shell. Seeing the dog on the tablet initiates a conversation, and gives them a break from thinking about their illness.

Ulyana Osorio, Coordinator, Volunteer Resources at the Civic Campus helped to organize the Virtual Pet Therapy Program at The Ottawa Hospital.

Still, the experience sometimes evokes sad emotions for the patients, and if that happens, Haswell is ready to support them.

In March, more than 1,400 volunteers were asked to stay home as part of The Ottawa Hospital’s response to COVID-19. The Virtual Pet Therapy Program is one way that some volunteers could continue delivering compassionate care to patients. Others volunteer at The Ottawa Hospital’s one-of-a-kind Virtual Information Desk.

The pilot is catching on.  Suzanne Lariviere, Volunteer Coordinator, General Campus launched the Virtual Pet Therapy pilot in the dialysis unit of the General Campus.  

The hope is to grow the existing program and also to continue it after the pandemic.  Virtual pet therapy would be ideal for patients who are in isolation for any reason, or for patients who are allergic to dogs but still enjoy their company.  

For now Christine, Caileigh and other volunteers will continue visiting patients safely from home, knowing that their efforts are making a big difference.

“All of us who do therapy dog work have beautiful, heartwarming stories about how our dogs, whom we love deeply, touched other people,” she said. “When you think that you’ve made a difference, when you’ve made an impact, there’s extraordinary value to that reality.”


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