Sarah Hutchens isn’t five feet through the doors of Saint Luke’s Homes in the west end of St. John’s when the oohs and ahs start. They’re not for her, though. Darting ahead of the third-year Memorial University student is the real centre of attention her 25-plus kilogram, 10-year old Siberian Husky, Nukin. Every Monday evening for the past four months, Ms. Hutchens has been bringing her dog to the home to visit with the seniors and staff. They’re regulars now and have made dozens of new friends who can’t wait until Nukin push her way into their rooms.
“She loves the attention,” said Ms. Hutchens, a biology major. “A lot of people just love her beautiful fur and they’re in awe of her. They light up a little bit and are happy with the way she reacts.”
Ms. Hutchens and Nukin are part of the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program, a country-wide initiative whereby volunteers bring their dogs into organizations on a weekly basis. Through regular visiting, a bond is created between the client, dog and volunteer. Across Canada, partnerships have been established in hospitals, palliative care units, day care centres, senior residences, psychiatric hospitals and nursing homes like Saint Luke’s, a member of the St. John’s Nursing Home Board.
The program started in the capital city in 1996 and has extended across the province. Volunteers visit 10 facilities in places such as Lewisporte, Gander, Corner Brook and St. John’s. Today there are more than 120 therapy dog volunteer teams who have been on more than 100,000 visits.
Ms. Hutchens is just one of hundreds of volunteers from Memorial who give up a few hours a week or month to give something back to the community.
She said she decided to join the Therapy Dog Program because she was looking to get more involved in an activity with Nukin.
“I was looking for volunteer work and I thought that it was time for me to do something that would really help somebody,” she said. “Nukin was a therapy dog with her previous owners and I think she was kind of looking at me saying ‘I’m here, I’m waiting. I kind of want to go.’”
Last fall, the two enrolled in the program and went through an evaluation that included a number of scenarios to see how Nukin would react to a nursing home setting. “They wanted to see what her response would be if people started touching her tail or somebody came towards us in a wheelchair and to see how she reacted with other dogs and people,” said Ms. Hutchens. “Since she was already a therapy dog she passed with flying colours.”
With a baggy of bite-size Vienna Sausages clasped in her hand, Ms. Hutchens makes her rounds at Saint Luke’s, stopping to let residents brush Nukin’s soft fur or to chat. Her dog doesn’t mind the attention, especially when she gets a treat for being so patient or doing a simple trick like waving her paw.
“The sausages are her favourite,” Ms. Hutchens said with a chuckle. “She gets a reward for being such a good girl. She’s full of tricks. She can jump up and lay down. She’ll give the seniors a good sniff and then probably lie down with them or sometimes curl up with them.”
In a few short months, Ms. Hutchens and Nukin have become favourite visitors at Saint Luke’s, especially for residents such as Marilyn Burt. A dog lover all her life, Mrs. Burt, 58, said she looks forward to seeing Ms. Hutchens and her dog each week.
“I used to have a dog myself,” she said leaning forward in her wheelchair just enough to let Nukin lick her cheek. “But she passed away. I miss her a lot. Seeing Nukin here brings a bit of joy to my day and reminds me of when I had my own dog.”
That sentiment is echoed by 88-year-old resident Dorothy Bailey, a native of Brooklyn, Bonavista Bay.
“She’s just beautiful,” she gushed while scratching Nukin’s ears. “Look at her fur. My god, she’s adorable. I love her.”
Ms. Hutchens entices Nukin to wave her paw one more time before giving her a treat. “You’re some smart dog,” Mrs. Bailey said before letting out a hearty laugh.
Bringing a smile to the resident’s face is what makes visits like this worthwhile, maintained Ms. Hutchens. “Some of these residents know I’m coming and they love it and appreciate it. Some say it’s been a long day and that it has been lonely and they don’t want us to leave.
“Leaving is probably the hardest thing for me to do,” she added. “I could say I’m going for an hour, but won’t get home until two hours later. Everything is about Nukin. She’s the centre of attention and they love to see her coming.”
Aside from adding some volunteer work to her resume, Ms. Hutchens insisted she gets a great deal out of coming to Saint Luke’s every week.
“Sometimes if I’m tired or have exams or have to study, I find it hard to get the energy to get up and go to the home,” she admitted. “But once I’m here I can’t leave because I love it. There’s something about elders. I used to have a really close relationship with my grandfather. There is no body else I think I should respect more than senior citizens.
“When I come home I can’t help but rave about it. I am really on a high,” she added. “Just to see how happy I can make them by doing something so easy is great. It’s so simple for me to do go there for one hour a week and it really makes their day and week.”
To learn more about the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program, visit www.stjohnambulance.nf.ca or call 1-800-801-0181.