Every other Tuesday, Morley is the centre of attention in the playroom of Victoria General Hospital’s pediatric unit.
It’s the type of attention the four-year-old labradoodle doesn’t mind – pets, scratches and belly rubs from kids and teenagers as he lounges on the cool blue floor of the small playroom in the north tower of the hospital.
“I think it’s got to be really hard for kids to come into the hospital and leave everything, their family, their pets, all the familiar things at home,” said Beverly Luiken, a View Royal resident and Morley’s owner and handler. “It’s a diversion from the seriousness of whatever’s going on.”
Luiken and Morley are part of St. John Ambulance’s therapy dog program – Morley even has an ID card to prove it. As part of the program, certified therapy dogs and their handlers visit patients in Island Health facilities around Greater Victoria to provide a friendly visit and talk about life beyond facility walls.
Twice a month for the past two years, Luiken and Morley have visited patients at The Heights at Mt. View, a seniors care facility. In the fall the program expanded its services to young patients, both kids and youth, who have been admitted to VGH’s pediatric unit for mental health reasons.
A few months ago, the pair also started doing drop-in visits to 911 dispatchers at the call centre in Langford as well.
On this particular Tuesday at the hospital, Luiken and Morley wait patiently on the floor as a young girl enters the room.
She’s hesitant at first, but as soon as she sits next to Morley and begins petting him, her mood and demeanour changes.
Luiken and the girl chat about her family, how she hated being in cars and strollers when she was younger, and her love for her own dog, as she pets Morley and adjusts his red and white St. John Ambulance therapy dog kerchief. He even gently touches his paw to her leg.
“Morley clearly loves this,” Luiken said. “He just listens and doesn’t judge … It’s very rewarding.”
Luiken worked as an oncology nurse for several years in Calgary, before she and her husband retired and moved to Victoria. Shortly after, the family got Morley and Luiken started looking for ways to get back into the health care environment.
When Morley turned two, the pair went through two rigorous evaluations – one to become a part of the therapy dog program, and a second to work specifically with children. And they haven’t looked back since.
For many young patients, that 15-minute session twice a month is a brief break from reality.
“I think kids in hospitals are missing their family pet a lot, but what’s even more important is those kids with mental health admissions who are having a lot of challenges, it’s very therapeutic and calming to see a dog like Morley who is so accepting, so mellow and just loves to be pet,” said Diane Edwards, a child life specialist with Island Health.
“You can see it in the children’s faces when they come in. It’s a beautiful moment in their visit. These kids could be here for days or weeks or they could come in more than once and it is a bright, happy part of their day.”
For more information on the St. John Ambulance therapy dog program visit sja.ca.