A magical team brings love to the hospital

A magical team brings love to the hospital

Each Wednesday Arielle Verreault and Gaïa head to work together at the University of Montreal Hospital Centre (CHUM). Meet this dynamic duo!

June 11, 2019 By Louise Dugas

As soon as they arrive, the 26-year-old caseworker and her 6-year-old Labernese partner spread joy, like stardust, over the people they meet. “For a moment, patients forget that they're in a hospital,” says Arielle.

Arielle and Gaïa work with patients in a substance-abuse and a psychiatric ward where their role is to help people break through their isolation. “Gaïa is happy and affectionate,” observes Arielle.

“She's always in a good mood and naturally seeks people out. She looks people straight in the eye with her beautiful soft gaze, and rolls on her back with her legs in the air waiting to be stroked. Some dogs act this way just to get treats but it's different with Gaïa, she really loves people.”

Though they spend a lot of time together, Gaïa doesn't belong to Arielle. Instead, she lives with her own human family and a black Labrador called Neptune. Both Neptune and Gaïa are members of the team of 30 dogs selected by Zoothérapie Québec to work with groups like those Gaïa visits at the CHUM and as well as people living with intellectual difficulties, children with behavioural challenges and elderly people who are losing their independence.

And it works. Tensions dissolve when a trained dog enters a room. It's a calming effect that's instantaneous and a true stress-killer.

At the CHUM, the procedure is simple: Arielle and Gaïa visit patient rooms and invite everyone who's interested to join them in the common room. “In the substance-abuse ward,” says Arielle, “people who've ever had or known a dog start talking about their experiences when they see Gaïa. It can help them to open up and share more personal stories—one patient told me how it gets to him when his dog knows that he's using and acts differently around him. And it means a lot to a patient when Gaïa rests her big, beautiful head on their laps. They'll say: ‘I must be special because that dog came right up to me.'”

The psychiatric ward that Arielle and Gaïa visit is for young adults aged 18 to 30 who are experiencing their first psychiatric event. “The hallways can keep you on your toes but Gaïa has such a gentle presence. A patient threw his tray at the wall at lunchtime but wanted to see Gaïa in the afternoon. He knew the dog would make him feel better. And I remember another patient who was delirious but had a moment of lucidity while stroking Gaïa. He told her: ‘You're beautiful.'”

It's rare for Gaïa to be hesitant with someone. “When this happens,” says Arielle, “she looks up at me for reassurance and I let her know that everything's going to be OK. But I never push her. I know Gaïa inside out and she trusts me—in the same way that Gaïa knows me and I trust her.” Arielle considers herself truly fortunate. “Honestly, we do a great job!”

Learn more:
www.zootherapiequebec.ca. (in French only)

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