Saskatoon therapy dog who changed lives of prisoners, eased fears at vaccine clinics, dies

·2 min read
Anna-Belle, a well-known therapy dog in Saskatoon, is shown with a patient. Colleen Dell, a sociologist and dog therapy expert at the University of Saskatchewan who was Anna-Belle's handler, says her career has been guided by the example of human connection the bulldog provided. (Submitted by Colleen Dell - image credit)
Anna-Belle, a well-known therapy dog in Saskatoon, is shown with a patient. Colleen Dell, a sociologist and dog therapy expert at the University of Saskatchewan who was Anna-Belle's handler, says her career has been guided by the example of human connection the bulldog provided. (Submitted by Colleen Dell - image credit)

A well-known therapy dog in Saskatoon who worked with prison inmates and made people feel comfortable getting their COVID-19 vaccines has died.

Anna-Belle, a white bulldog, lived with her handler and colleague Colleen Dell, a sociologist and dog therapy expert at the University of Saskatchewan.

The two were providing support at COVID-19 vaccine clinics in Saskatoon up until a tumour was found in the 10-year-old dog's brain earlier in December.

Dell recalls how a man, shaking and rocking in the corner of a room while waiting for his vaccine, was able to overcome his fear by petting Anna-Belle.

"Just by being present, or near, she had the power to calm a fearful child, or ground a stressed adult. Her softness brought out the goodness in people," said Claire Lajeunesse-Lewko, who works at a vaccination centre in Saskatoon.

Submitted by Colleen Dell
Submitted by Colleen Dell

Dell says the man at the vaccination centre credited Anna-Belle's lack of judgment with softening his experience.

Todd Ramsum said he feels the same way.

He was in prison in Drumheller, Alta., when he first met Anna-Belle through Pawsitive Support — a newly created program connecting inmates with therapy dogs. At the time, Ramsum was about three weeks sober after an overdose.

Anna-Belle immediately showed an eagerness to meet him and play.

"When I made that connection with her it was pure — it was respect and it was trust," Ramsum said.

"She brought me back to reality. Like, the prison system isn't forever and all the negativity that surrounds addictions isn't forever. And the love from an animal can be recreated in other humans, your family, and it reminded me of that."

Submitted by Colleen Dell
Submitted by Colleen Dell

Anna-Belle the bulldog held a lot of honours for her work. She contributed to two peer-reviewed publications. She worked with seniors at retirement homes, provided end-of-life support and helped addictions patients who were suffering from trauma.

Dell said her career has been guided by the example of human connection Anna-Belle provided.

One major guiding principle Dell has is ensuring that when dogs are tired or need something, their welfare comes first.

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