Duke stops people in his tracks wherever he walks throughout the hallways of the Sturgeon Community Hospital. People see him coming and they immediately start smiling.
That’s the common reaction for the seven-year-old border collie/blue heeler cross. Duke may have come from a long line of European and Australian herding dogs, but he’s as mild-mannered as Clark Kent. Put him in a hospital setting and he’s practically Superdog. All he has to do is let people pet him or let him jump up on their beds and cuddle for a minute.
“The staff, the patients who are here… they wait for Duke to come,” says his owner, Gene Casavant, with a bit of self-effacing humour. “Not so much for me, it’s Duke. You couldn’t get a friendlier dog, I think.”
It doesn’t take long for that fact to become immediately apparent. Waiting rooms at the emergency or the admissions wards are not known for being the happiest places where most people are in good spirits. Once Duke enters the room, there’s a noticeable change in the atmosphere. People smile and laugh. They walk right up and start petting and talking to him.
The concept of pet therapy, now mostly known as animal-assisted therapy (AAT), has been around for a long time but has only become a popular tool in the last few decades. It generally involves only the most pleasant dogs and cats, but there have been instances of other species being used like horses or ferrets.
Casavant has been bringing Duke to the Sturgeon on most Wednesday mornings for almost three years now, and generally for about three hours each time.
Before that, they visited some of the seniors’ homes in the area, including the Citadel. He sees the overwhelmingly positive response that his precious pet gets from the young and the old alike.
“Out of thousands of visits, there’s only been one time that somebody didn’t like Duke. That’s a pretty good average.”
The goal of AAT to give patients the feelings of love and safety that they couldn’t get otherwise from the medical system. Patients who have been deprived of social interactions, who are bedridden, who can’t speak, or who have been emotionally hurt by people find there is a lot of comfort to be had from the unconditional love and friendliness of these animals.
Casavant had to take Duke through a training course provided by the Pet Therapy Society of Edmonton, just to make sure that he had the right stuff. In other words, he can’t snap at strangers or bark a lot, among other qualities. He doesn’t even need a leash and obeys all of his owner’s commands.
In one activity room during his last visit, a group had gathered to sing some Christmas songs. They were familiar with Duke, with one musician even calling him the “highlight of our sing-alongs” but it remains to be seen how much actual singing he can do. He entertained them with dog tricks, sitting pretty and shaking hands so that he could get some treats. Simply by being a dog, he has become the centre of attention of about 15 people.
Maybe that’s Duke’s gift, or at least part of it. He is an excellent distraction for those who are in a place where people generally don’t choose to go to or stay. Casavant says that there’s nothing like what Duke does.
“It’s heart-warming,” Casavant admitted. “You couldn’t describe it.”
We came in one day and there was a little girl sitting on her moms knee, waiting to get looked at. The little girl was crying. [Duke] comes over I got him to do a couple tricks and before we left, she was laughing.
He ended by saying that it’s moments like that that touch him profoundly as well and keep him coming back with Duke right at his side.
To learn more about the society, call 780-413-4682 or visit www.pettherapysociety.com.