The Winchester Press 

         Wednesday, December 23, 2015   

   Animal assisted therapy       helps patients ‘come alive


         by Alicia K. Gosselin - Press staff

METCALFE    –  His  150- pound furry frame might be intimidating to some, but the elderly residents at the Town- ship of Osgoode Care Centre (TOCC) just smile and coo  at the sight of big ‘ol Guinness – a hefty mixture of St. Bernard, Newfoundland, and Burmese Mountain dog.

Described as the “rock star” of the long-term care home, Guinness doesn’t just visit residents weekly to get pet – he has a job to do.

And his official TOCC name tag proves it:


     “Guinness– Life Enrichment Therapist.”

“Guinness is an amazing therapy dog – even with the residents who aren’t usually engaged, just a pet of the dog’s head, we see their eyes open wide, an expression on their face, the resident's come alive.

Above: Osgoode Care Centre resident Iva Shelp lights up every time Guinness, a certified therapy dog, walks through the long-term care home.

Right: Resident Mac Simser said he enjoys how gentle Guinness is when he wants to take him for a walk.

Below: Guinness has his very own name tag at the Township of Osgoode Care Centre, identifying him as the home’s “Life Enrichment Therapist"


“You can’t hug a horse and be cured, mental health is a process. I’ve worked in mental health for a long time, and regonized the formal settings don't always work, the concept was to create an environment outside of the office,” Macfarlane-File said. “When I first started, it was considered alternative therapy, but there’s nothing  alternative  about  it!
– I’ve just created an environment where youth/adults want to come, use it to engage them into the counselling experience.Counselling may occur during a walk with the dog.” According to Macfarlane- File, Guinness “adores kids,” and fit right in at the farm after she rescued him from an uncertain future a few years ago. His previous owners wanted to put him down because of his massive size,                                                     
The magic is the expression   on
their face, the resident's comes alive,” said Lori Norris-Dudley, TOCC’s executive director. “That’s meaningful. Some of our residents used to have pets before they  came  here, so it gives them a sense of home and purpose.”

The moment his owner, Mary-Lou  Macfarlane- File, puts on her nursing uniform in the morning, Guinness starts wagging his tail and jumping toward the front door. He knows what he’s about to do. And as the  centre’s part-time foot care

specialist, Macfarlane-File rarely goes to her appointments to care for patients without her beloved dog.

“A true therapy dog has to have the right

personality,  right instinct, right  heart
– and he does, he’s just truly a caring, big, huge guy,” said Macfarlane-File. “He far exceeded my expectations [as a therapy dog].”

According to Norris- Dudley, animal-facilitated therapy proves to be an integral part of the home’s atmosphere. Not only does Guinness light up the residents as he visits from wheelchair  to

wheelchair, but his presence also helps calm the residents during treatments.

Her own mother, who is   a resident  at the centre, has  a hard time with her feet being touched and tends to get stressed out during treatments. But when Guinness is there, her mother’s attention is completely shifted from what’s going on with her feet to petting and snuggling the top of his head.

At the 100-bed long-term care home, Norris-Dudley notes that it’s not a one- size-fits-all model. Planning recreational and therapeutic programs    revolves   around
the residents’ needs and personalities, and having various types of animals come in to visit the

residents affects each patient differently.

But it certainly has positive effects, according to TOCC’s recreation director Lindsay Webber.

When residents are exposed to the “unconditional love  of an animal,” Webber observes that it has proven to lower blood pressure, calm agitated residents, and spark recognition in patients  with  memory loss.

“Our residents can really connect with  animals,” said Webber. “If it’s difficult to have a conversation with your father now because of his advanced stage of dementia, that whole visit becomes focused on the dog and gives that connection. Even just sitting and petting the dog while  

watching the hockey game gives more of a normal interaction.” But Guinness’ labour of love doesn’t end at TOCC. When he’s not cheering up the elderly, he’s running around Macfarlane-File’s 100-acre farm near Hallville cheering up  youth  with  mental illness– something his owner is absolutely passionate about.

Macfarlane-File, a mental health therapist and registered psychiatric nurse, puts animal-facilitated therapy into action every day at Fawg Forest Therapeutic Farm and Counselling Services.

The farm, founded in  2000 after Macfarlane-File re- tired from the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre, provides youth and their families with mental health and wellness services in a non- traditional natural environment, where young people can “learn about themselves and the environment that surrounds them.”

With several ponies, dogs, cats, chickens, and rabbits, there’s  no  shortage  of  furry
friends for youth to visit during their counselling sessions. MacFarlane-File deals with many mental health issues, including depression, trauma, anxiety, low self-esteem, violence victims, and more.

A study conducted in a Canadian in-patient psychiatric unit suggested that animals increased motivation, as the percentage of patient attendance was reportedly higher in counselling groups where animals were present. The results showed that animals were an effective medium to draw

isolated individuals into settings where they can be more easily assessed and treated.

As a unique approach to mental health therapy, the Canadian Mental Health Association   recognized  Fawg Forest.Forest in 2008 for “Innovation  and Effective Mental Health Programming.”

The fact that Macfarlane- File can wear blue jeans to work may have something to do with the casual setting she has created for her patients, but the incorporation of animals has certainly enhanced Macfarlane-File’s therapeutic approach to health and wellness. She notes that most of her clients refuse to open up in an office  setting,  which is why engaging youth with outdoor activities and

animals has been so effective.

“If you were to observe me, you’d say I was just playing with the kids. Well, I am, but I’m also doing other things,” she said. “This environment, the animals, the activities, help me assess comprehension, assess focus,mood and thought processes........,clients feel that they can safely take their guard down… And it’s all about getting back to basics.”