CORNWALL – It’s been more than two decades since Jane McLaren brought her dog into a nursing home and realized its potential to improve residents’ quality of life.
On Saturday, the Cornwall resident was inducted as a member of the Order of St. John for her many efforts to promote canine therapy.
Nominated by the local branch of the St. John Ambulance therapy dog program, McLaren was awarded the honour by Governor General David Johnston in a ceremony held in the Canadian Senate chambers.
“It’s overwhelming,” she said, adding that they were briefed on proper protocol – including how to correctly bow before Johnston. Though she was informed of the nomination months ago, it wasn’t until the medal was being pinned on her uniform that she was told why.
“You sort of hear it but you’re not taking it in at the same time,” she said.
There were three reasons McLaren was suggested for the honour: for establishing the Cornwall initiative, creating a provincial brand for dog therapy programs, and helping launch branches in Alberta and Saskatchewan.
“I was surprised,” said McLaren of her initial reaction to the news.
As a member, she is at the first level of the order, which also includes officer, commander, knight and bailiff grand cross. Across Canada, there are roughly 5,500 inductees into what is officially known as the most venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem.
McLaren said she wasn’t even aware of the organization when she first became involved with St. John Ambulance.
An active member of the local kennel club, she was approached with the idea of starting a therapy dog program in 2004.
By then, McLaren had already spent years doing therapy visits in nursing homes, licensed under an American program called the Delta Society with her dog, Moon.
“We were the first animal-assisted therapy team designated in Canada,” she said.
Now, she coordinates 20 members and 26 dogs in the Cornwall program, who are regular visitors to nursing homes, hospices, schools and libraries.
One of her two dogs that participates, Caleb, is licensed to work with both adults and children through the Reading Education Assistance Dogs initiative. He also recently hit the milestone of 500 visits.
“He has more medals than I do,” said McLaren, with a laugh.
She said she’s been amazed at people’s responses to the animals – those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease begin to reminisce, patients forget their pain, and children pick up books far above their grade level.
“It’s extremely effective,” she said.
“It’s all about the residents,” she added, noting both pets and handlers are tested before meeting with patients or clients. “Sometimes we don’t even talk about dogs.”
The Ontario-wide program celebrated its 20th anniversary on Tuesday, sending McLaren to Toronto to receive a plaque honouring the Cornwall chapter.
But even with the recent accolades, McLaren isn’t content to sit back.
She’s busy writing grant applications for St. John, and planning for a new intake of volunteers this fall, as well as an expansion of the program into the Casselman area.