When it comes to knowing who could really use a hug, Roo – the newest addition to Peace Arch Hospital’s emergency department – has an innate sense about her.
Whether the individual is scared, upset, nervous or what-have-you, the gentle four-legged staffer gravitates to them, leaning in to offer her support, or simply putting her head in their lap.
“It is an amazing impact,” said Christine Simmons, of the difference she’s seen Roo have on those around her. Young and old alike, “people are just in awe of her.”
“You have to see it to believe it.”
Roo, an accredited facility dog, was raised and trained by Pacific Assistance Dogs Society (PADS), and brought onboard at PAH “to support and care for our patients who are experiencing trauma, by providing a calming influence and touch,” a March tweet announcing the yellow-Lab-golden-retriever’s arrival proclaims.
Meet Roo — the newest addition to PAH's ER team! 🐾 Roo was raised + trained by Pacific Assistance Dog Society (PADS) in Burnaby, BC and is here to support and care for our patients who are experiencing trauma by providing a calming influence and touch. Welcome, Roo! 💙🐾 pic.twitter.com/zy8e5uUtlV— Peace Arch Hospital Foundation (@pahfoundation) March 21, 2022
The now five-year-old came to Simmons – who works as an emergency-room social worker at both Peace Arch and Surrey Memorial hospitals – almost three years ago.
A South Surrey resident who came to health care after 20 years with the Ministry of Children and Family Development, Simmons said she hadn’t had any connections to PADS previous to Roo, but put up her hand for the opportunity to become a handler because she “knew this was going to be helping the kids and families I was working with.”
To prepare for the commitment – which Simmons describes as “huge” – Simmons researched PADS, underwent training, and reached out to “a whole bunch” of fellow PADS handlers across Canada.
Everyone was “extremely helpful… so supportive,” she said.
Roo, Simmons noted, is not a service dog – she simply wasn’t born to do things like push elevator buttons or open refrigerator doors.
Every PADS dog is purpose-bred – some are naturals at performing such tasks as retrieving items or turning lights on and off, while others are quickly identified as having the perfect personality to offer comfort.
Dogs like Roo “are chosen for these roles because of their demeanour,” said PADS’ Meredith Areskoug.
“They are resilient and able to bounce back quickly after something potentially stressful occurs,” she continued. “They are also sweet natured and have the ability to seek out people that need their support.”
Roo was on shift when just such a person recently arrived at the emergency ward.
The young lady “was really anxious because she didn’t know what was going on with her, with her own body,” Simmons said.
However, “she just immediately was super-calm when Roo came to visit.”
“It took her mind off whatever she was going through, which is what Roo is for.”
Roo has also been “super supportive” to families that have experienced a loss, as well as to hospital staff and paramedics who at times feel the weight of their jobs, Simmons added.
“After the trauma has died down… I will take Roo around the nursing stations and she’ll just be there,” Simmons said. “They’ll literally stop what they’re doing, and they need a cuddle from Roo.”
Before Roo interacts with anyone, Simmons said she always checks first to ensure the dog’s attention is wanted. After that, how much time Roo spends with the individual or group varies – sometimes it’s just five minutes, other times “it will be hours.”
Simmons emphasized that Roo and other dogs who do similar work in the community are not on the job 24/7. Roo does not accompany Simmons on every shift, and not for a full 12 hours either. Such a schedule would simply be too much for the dog, Simmons said.
“And she’ll tell you,” Simmons added, referring to signals Roo gives that she has reached her limit.
Sometimes, Roo will simply stop dead in her tracks towards the end of a shift, “and you have to be mindful,” Simmons said.
When she’s not working, Roo enjoys camping, playing with Fenway – her brother from another mother – and other plain-and-simple family stuff.
Dogs like Roo cost thousands of dollars to train, and Simmons said sponsorship by the Rotary Club of South Surrey was “very instrumental” in preparing Roo for her role. Late club member Renee Nicholson was a particularly avid supporter of PADS, Simmons noted.
She emphasized that becoming a handler, while hugely rewarding, is not something to be taken lightly.
“I think initially people would be like, oh, this is a great idea. But it is a very huge responsibility to have a dog like Roo,” Simmons said.
In addition to having specific commands and training that must be continually enforced, “Roo can’t be alone for more than four hours at a time.”
Veterinary bills can also be hefty, Simmons said.
“But I’ve also seen for myself the impact that these dogs have had. I’ve seen it in court, I’ve seen it in the hospitals, I’ve seen it supporting schools.”
Other working PADS dogs have included Koltan, who was at Surrey Memorial Hospital from 2017-2019.
Sadly, Koltan died last summer from leukemia.
Another, Caber, retired in 2019 after nine years on the job. The yellow Lab was Canada’s first accredited justice facility dog.
Simmons described any publicity that raises awareness of Roo and the difference dogs like her are making as “awesome.”
For more information about PADS, visit pads.ca
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