Therapy dog program unleashed

The St. John Ambulance Thereapy Dog program has shut down in Vernon

A beloved dog therapy program has shut down after years of dedicated service.

The St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog program leaves Vernon after many years of cheering up the community.

Jo-Ann Johnston worked as the facilitator for more than 17 years but said with too many changes to protocols and procedures the program couldn’t survive.

“My volunteers only want to take their dogs visiting and not be burdened by this new, impersonal data-based system,” said Johnston.

Many of her volunteers would have to rely on computers, which a lot of them don’t own.

Johnston’s division included Revelstoke, Armstrong, Enderby, Oyama, Lumby, Coldstream and Vernon. On a daily basis, Johnston and her volunteers would visit more than 25 locations.

Volunteer Dorothy Larsen and her dog Mitsy spent more than three years going to Vernon Jubilee Hospital to brighten the days of the patients. Larsen will always remember when a nurse told her a patient had a massive stroke and hadn’t moved or spoken until Mitsy came for a visit.

Mitsy was allowed into the room and immediately jumped up and gave the patient a kiss on the neck. Larsen said the patient lifted her frail hand to pet Mitsy and said, “nice doggy.”

“That certainly gave me goose bumps and made my day,” said Larsen.

More than 300 people have committed their time to the program and Johnston is thankful to have had such a dedicated team to help make a difference in so many people’s lives.

She started with her therapy dog Bebe who helped with numerous orientations and assessments of a variety of people. Bebe passed the torch onto Johnston’s recent therapy dog Hugo, who was a hit whereever he went.

“They make such a big difference to people’s lives,” said Johnston.

Volunteers and their dogs would visit many places including nursing homes, retirement residences and even schools. Okanagan College students would light up when the dogs came for a visit and even the masculine men playing pool would stop to pet and coo over the visitors.

“I always said that if you just made one person smile, you had done your job,” said Johnston.

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