About a year ago in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit of Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, a young mother was sitting in a chair cradling her two-month-old preemie. They were awaiting a special visitor.
In walked Toronto native Joan Hewitt with Lilli, her 125-pound Great Pyrenees therapy dog. The baby looked at the dog while her mother gently patted Lilli’s humongous head. Suddenly, the baby smiled at her mother for the first time. “She had a huge grin,” Joan recalled, “and it showed once again how children react to my gentle white giant.”
Lilli’s career started serendipitously. Joan had taken the Big White Dog to a Humane Society fund raiser and ersatz dog show at her gated community in Florida. She recalls, “There were all these little dogs wearing black tuxes and blue tutus, and then there was Lilli — wearing a pink bow tie. Lilli couldn’t pirouette or dance, but her demeanor and behavior impressed one of the judges who suggested that Lilli had the makings of a therapy dog.”
Joan was intrigued and quite ready to set aside her needlepointing and golf games. Within several weeks, Lilli had passed 10 training and obedience tests, and received her license. “No small feat,” Joan said, listing the hour-long sessions focusing on meeting and greeting, obedience, socialization and familiarization with hospital equipment.
That summer, Lilli was booked for weekly visits at Toronto’s General Hospital, the Hospital for Sick Children, Ryerson University and Meighen Manor, an assisted living facility. When she returned to Florida for the winter, she joined the posse of pooches who participate in the award-winning literacy program, Paws to Read, at Stuart’s Blake Library and the Indiantown Library.
“Many kids have difficulty reading, and as a result have low self-esteem,” Joan explained. “For the Paws to Read program, Lilli sits in front of a child who is reading a book. It’s been shown that kids tend to focus better and forget their limitations when an animal is present. Lilli must do a ‘down stay’ facing the child for 35 minutes — that’s a long time but she does it.”
Great Pyrenees dogs were originally developed to protect shepherds and their flocks in the Pyrennese Mountains that divide France and Spain. During World War II, the French underground used these clever dogs to safely deliver people and messages to Spain. “Once they were taught the route, the dog could repeat it,” Joan said. “Then, because of their excellent attention spans and obvious empathy, they were singled out for therapy work.”
Research indicates that “positive interaction with animals
increases endorphins, oxytocin, prolactin and dopamine,
hormones associated with blood pressure regulation, pain relief,
stress relief and joy. Visits from therapy animal teams can
lessen worry, anxiety, unhappiness and pain.”
Recently, Lilli visited a 12-year-old Canadian girl about to undergo serious surgery. Joan says, “Just before she was wheeled away, I gave her Lilli’s business card. The child begged the surgeons to let her bring it with her into the OR. I’m not sure if they did, but she was still clutching it when she woke up several hours later in the Recovery Room.”
When Lilli was originally trained for therapy work three years ago, there were 35 dogs working with the St. John Ambulance Branch in Toronto. Today there are 275. “We work as a team,” Joan said, “and I can’t begin to describe how blessed I feel to be able to do this with my Big White Dog.”