Lifestyle & Parenting

Canuck Place Is Where Comfort & Care Is Found With A Wag Of A Tail

March 29, 2022

April 30 is National Therapy Animal Day and, ahead of it, we’d like to intro you to Gaia, Canuck Place Children’s Hospice’s Accredited Facilities Dog, who contributes to holistic, interdisciplinary pediatric palliative care. We chatted with one of Gaia’s two handlers, nursing manager Brenda Dewar, to learn more about how this lovely lab/retriever cross lends a paw to support to children and families. —Noa Nichol

Hi Brenda! Please tell us a bit about yourself to start.

My name is Brenda Dewar, and I am the clinical nursing manager at Canuck Place Children’s Hospice, primarily working out of our Vancouver hospice and I have worked at Canuck Place for 23 years. Canuck Place is B.C. and the Yukon’s only pediatric palliative care provider, caring for over 800 children with life-threatening illnesses and their families.

National Therapy Animal Day is coming up on April 30, and we’d love to know more about Canuck Place Children’s Hospice’s Accredited Facilities Dog, Gaia! Who is she? What work does she do? How was she trained/selected for this work? How do you work with her?

We are so lucky to have Gaia as a part of our clinical care team. Gaia is a loving, gentle, and gorgeous lab/retriever cross who works alongside our team to support the care of children with life-threatening illnesses and their families. Gaia primarily spends her time with me and one of our nurse practitioners, Camara van Breemen and gives emotional support as we care for children—whether in the hospice, in-home, or in the hospital. Gaia is an Accredited Facilities Dog, so her main role is assisting with care where we (and the family) feel there would be a physical, emotional, or social improvement with a dog. Gaia is one-of-a-kind. She was selected out of a dozen other dogs to provide comfort and emotional support. She has such a gentle demeanor combined with amazing training that makes her excel in her role. She was raised and trained by a pair of long-time PADS volunteer puppy-raisers, the organization alongside YVR for Kids who support Gaia. Gaia constantly seeks out people who need support, often walking up to people and laying her head on someone’s knee. She just knows. What makes her even more special is that she can support these people without taking stress on herself. She has a very gentle demeanour and will not approach children until she is asked to do so.  

How does Gaia contribute to holistic, interdisciplinary pediatric palliative care?

At Canuck Place, we provide interdisciplinary pediatric palliative care. This is an active, holistic approach to care that focuses on relieving the physical, social, psychological and spiritual suffering experienced by children and families who face a progressive, life-threatening illness. It’s an approach that aims to provide optimal comfort and quality of life, to sustain hope and family connection. We use a child and family-centred approach to care that is based on shared decision-making and sensitivity to a family’s cultural and spiritual values, beliefs and practices. Because of this, we have a wide range of professionals on our team, including art and recreation therapists, music therapists, nurses, doctors, counsellors, and more. Gaia contributes to this interdisciplinary care because she makes it possible for children and families to talk about scary feelings or experiences and offer comfort and healing during difficult times. Sometimes, she even cuddles in children’s beds, offering much-needed snuggle time.

Who are the kids she works with?

Gaia works with many of the children on our program. She visits them when they are in-house at either our Vancouver or Abbotsford hospice and even goes on home-visits and visits in-hospital. She meets a wide range of kids and families!

How many children has she worked with/does she currently work with?

Gaia has worked with many of the children on our program. It would be over 100 by now! This includes newborns right up to the late teens.

What do the kids say about her? What does she do for the kids?

We see lots of big smiles and giggles. They love her soft ears and many love playing ball with her outside in the yard. She is acquiring quite a collection of soft toys that kids bring in for her.

What special commands does Gaia know, that our own dog probably wouldn’t shake a tail at (Pickle the Goldendoodle can shake a paw and that’s about the extent of it!)?

Gaia knows about 20 commands that Camara and I practice with her everyday. She will not touch her meals until she is released to eat her meal. She goes to the bathroom outside when she is released to go to the bathroom! She looks directly at us to get the command.

In general, why is the work done by Accredited Facility Dogs so important?

From a pediatric palliative care perspective an Accredited Facility Dog’s work is so important because not only do the dogs provide emotional healing, they also provide a sense of companionship and stability during uncertain times. Not only for our children and families, but also for our staff! Gaia knows exactly who needs a little bit of support and when. Accredited Facility dogs are bred and trained to do this important work full time.

We’d love to know more about Gaia! What’s her personality like? What does she do during her “down time”? Who does she live with? What’s her favourite game, treat and scratch spot?

Gaia goes between Camara’s house and my house. We usually do one week at a time but we are both very flexible with taking Gaia based on our work and vacation schedules. Gaia transitions well between both homes. Our families love her and she has become a member of both families. Gaia loves working but also loves vacation time, swimming at the lake, running into the ocean, playing with balls, looking for sticks in the garden at Glen Brae and playing with other dogs that look like her.

Do you have any funny, heartwarming and/or touching stories about Gaia and her work that we could share?

Gaia loves spending time with the kids. She has given comfort to many children and teens by lying close to them in bed, she loves playing fetch and many kids ask to see Gaia as soon as they wake up in the morning and ask, “is Gaia here yet?” 

How long do you expect Gaia’s career as an Accredited Facility Dog to last? What will her retirement look like, and are there other Accredited Facility Dogs to take her place at Canuck Place?

We hope Gaia is with us for a long time! Gaia had a predecessor, a beautiful golden retriever named Poppy. Poppy passed away in 2018 and we were lucky to have her for 11 years. We are grateful to have such amazing partners in PADS and YVR For Kids who make Gaia and her care possible and hope we continue to have amazing Accredited Facility Dogs like Gaia contribute to the care provided at Canuck Place. Camara and I have been told the average working life for a dog like Gaia is seven years. Camara and I will complete a test with Gaia every year to make sure that she is still responding to commands as she should. When she stops responding as she should the PADs team would retire Gaia from her work. Camara and I can continue to have her stay with us and she would spend her retirement years with us.


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