Dogs trained to comfort nervous people, help kids get COVID-19 vaccines

·4 min read

OTTAWA — Children turning up for their COVID-19 vaccine in Quebec last Friday were surprised to find not just the promise of a sticker at the end of the ordeal, but a waggy-tailed dog eager to be petted and potentially calm their fears over getting the shots.

At least three provinces have been recruiting therapy dogs to help reassure children and adults nervous about getting needles at vaccination clinics for months. Now the specially-trained canines are being enlisted to help with the rollout of vaccines for children aged five to 11.

In Montreal on Friday, therapy dogs were on hand to comfort some of the first kids under 12 to get shots after the approval of vaccines for the younger age group.

Animal therapists in Quebec are now considering taking their dogs into schools as the pediatric immunization drive ramps up.

In Saskatoon, therapy dogs are also being recruited to help take the sting out of kids' COVID-19 jabs.

Children and adults with a fear of needles, or who worry about getting a protective jab against COVID-19, have turned to therapy dogs to reduce anxiety for months at some vaccination centres in Saskatchewan, Quebec and British Columbia.

In B.C, St. John Ambulance has taken their therapy dogs into Covid-19 vaccine clinics in Penticton and Trail.

Françoise Callamand-Mayer, an animal therapist from Montreal, was on hand Friday with Indiana, her seven year old retriever/Bernese mountain dog mix, at a clinic where some of the first children age five and up were being inoculated against the virus.

"I found some children who were afraid but my dog Indiana, who is a big girl, was always helpful," she said. "Some were crying so hard, but they could pet the dog and it was really magic. In a few minutes they touched the dog and they stopped crying."

She plans to take Indiana and her three-year old cockerpoo Petit Jones into schools and clinics so the kids can pet them while they get their shots. They can also sit on people's laps or lie down next to them if they are especially nervous.

She said parents had been contacting her to see if one of her dogs could accompany their child to a vaccination centre, adding Quebec schools have also been in touch.

The animal therapist said the dogs have a profoundly calming effect and have prevented some people with an acute fear of needles from fainting in clinics.

Colleen Dell, an expert in dog therapy at the University of Saskatchewan, has been taking her trained therapy dog Anna-Belle to clinics in Saskatoon and observing the effect.

The professor said the white bull-dog sits on a chair beside those getting their shots so they can pet her, which significantly reduces anxiety.

Dell said the "more worked up a person is prior to getting their needle, the higher the likelihood they will find the needle experience was painful."

For this reason the therapy dogs accompany people both while having their shots and while they wait in line.

Dell said dog therapists have been working with the Saskatchewan health authority as the child-focused immunization drive picks up speed in that province.

“Making the experience of getting a needle as positive as we can for both children and adults is important because it shapes how they will feel about coming back for a second one," she said.

Dell said the dogs help transform "a traumatic situation for some into one that is bearable." Therapy dogs, she added, also offer an alternative for people who might otherwise resort to anti-anxiety medication.

“Needle hesitancy is widespread and a much broader issue than just for our COVID vaccination clinics," Dell said. "Most responses to it that I am aware of are medicalized, like taking a pill to calm. Therapy dogs are a new option to bring comfort, support and a distraction to experience.”

Research shows that petting a dog releases the feel-good hormone oxytocin and lowers the stress hormone cortisol so the "patient feels comforted and supported at a time when they are feeling most vulnerable," Dell said.

Callamand-Mayer said the impact of her dogs has been profound for some people with a fear of needles getting COVID-19 shots.

"A lady said, 'I have always fainted when I have got a shot,'" the therapist said of a recent interaction with a vaccine recipient. "She said she was going to faint and I put the dog on her on the bed and she didn't. It was incredible. She couldn't believe it."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 28, 2021.

Marie Woolf, The Canadian Press

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