Therapy Animal Day: A Round Of Apaws For Canuck Place’s Gaia

April 19, 2024

National Therapy Animal Day is on April 30; Canuck Place Children’s Hospice’s Accredited Facilities Dog, Gaia, contributes to holistic, interdisciplinary pediatric palliative care. Accredited Facility Dogs are meant to assist community care professionals where there would be physical, social, or emotional improvement with the addition of a dog and its specially trained dog-handler team. Canuck Place is B.C. and the Yukon’s only pediatric palliative care provider, caring for over 871 children with life-threatening illnesses and the families who love them. We chatted with Gaia’s handler, nurse practitioner Camara van Breemen, to learn more about how they provide support to children and families. —Noa Nichol

Can you tell us about your role as the handler for Gaia, Canuck Place Children’s Hospice’s Accredited Facilities Dog, and how you became involved in this unique form of therapy?

I have been on staff at Canuck Place for close to 30 years. In my current role as a Nurse Practitioner and Enhanced Community Care Lead, Gaia is my loyal sidekick. Before Gaia joined Canuck Place, we had an Accredited Facilities Dog named Poppy, and for many years and I witnessed how much she helped the children, families, and staff at Canuck Place.

In early 2020, YVR for Kids, who had raised the funds to support Poppy as a full-time Accredited Facilities Dog, graciously offered to continue the funding for us to bring on a new dog after Poppy passed away. At the time, we did not have any staff members who felt they could take on the onerous role of becoming a handler. After speaking with my colleague Brenda (our former Nursing Manager who is now retired), we decided to take this opportunity on together.

The application process is challenging and learning curve for the handlers is steep. Brenda and I had to learn how to be handlers who enabled the well-trained dog to do her job well and maintain her health.  We also had to learn how to best use the dog’s skills. In February 2021, after Brenda and I had completed the rigorous training, Canuck Place, with support from our partners Pacific Assistance Dogs Society (PADS) and YVR for Kids, welcomed a new Accredited Facilities dog, Gaia. Gaia was hand-selected for us by PADS for her very calm, gentle, and controlled nature. She loves to greet and support people, key roles when interacting with seriously-ill children and their families. Gaia provides comfort to children as well as distraction from the stress they may be feeling. 

In what ways does Gaia contribute to the holistic care provided at Canuck Place Children’s Hospice, particularly in terms of supporting the emotional well-being of the children and families you work with?

Gaia remains calm and collected regardless of the situation, which is extremely crucial in her role. I have brought her into rooms of children who are extremely sick and she gentley curls in beside them (after we get consent – of course). Her gentle presence can be really comforting for children and families. While Gaia is always ready for work when her PADS vest goes on, she is also playful. As I mentioned above, she is often a fantastic distraction for children and families going through the unimaginable. She loves to go out on the recess break with the children who are receiving respite care at the hospice.  

As a Nurse Practitioner, how do you collaborate with Gaia in your interactions with patients and their families, and how does this partnership enhance the quality of care you’re able to provide?

I have to be thoughtful and intentional about when to bring Gaia into the work I do. I assess many things before I enter a room or a meeting. For example, how does the family feel about a dog visiting? Would the dog help bring connection to our team? Will Gaia provide much-needed comfort or distraction? These types of questions and analysis help inform if and when I bring Gaia, and what her role may be in the engagement.    

Can you share a memorable moment or experience where Gaia’s presence had a profound impact on a child or family at Canuck Place Children’s Hospice?

Gaia comes with me wherever I go, whether that’s at one of our two hospice locations (in Vancouver or Abbotsford), to the hospital if I am consulting or visiting patients, or to families’ homes if a child may be receiving at-home or community-based care. I have so many stories but one very impactful one is around the care I was providing for a family whose child was dying. Gaia came with me on many home visits with a little girl named, Neda. She loved visiting with her and her siblings. When Neda died, Gaia and I made another visit to support the family with after-death care. As Neda’s mum said, “Gaia came in, lied down beside her and put her head on Neda’s foot to say goodbye.” The family later reflected how Gaia helped Neda and all of them and is truly an invaluable member of the Canuck Place Team.    

National Therapy Animal Day highlights the invaluable contributions of therapy animals like Gaia. In your opinion, what sets Gaia apart and makes her particularly effective in her role at the hospice?

Gaia is a highly intelligent dog. She is also extremely well-trained because of the outstanding program and training that PADS excels at. Gaia is unique in that she is not a pet, really, but an animal that gets much reward from attuning to people’s needs and getting feedback that she is doing a good job. In this way, she is a member of the Canuck Place team in a helping role. Of course, just like humans, working dogs also need days off. At the end of the day, when Gaia’s vest comes off, she comes home with me and has down time and the chance to just be a dog.

Can you elaborate on the interdisciplinary approach to pediatric palliative care at Canuck Place Children’s Hospice and how Gaia fits into this framework?

Holistic care, which is a tenet of pediatric palliative care, acknowledges that each person has physical, emotional, social, and spiritual needs. To care for a child and a family well, it takes a team.  Interdisciplinary care enhances our ability to not only assess what the child and family needs but to also offer services and programing that will help them on their journey.  When a child has a serious illness, the child needs good pain and symptom management, family support, and expertise in communication and care planning. Canuck Place care includes respite care, recreation therapy, art and education, music therapy, counselling and bereavement, and end-of-life care, and we offer families a choice for the place of care – a choice to stay at home, in the hospital, or at the hospice, in either Vancouver or Abbotsford.


  1. Sandra Matheson

    April 26th, 2024 at 8:28 am

    While in training, this special girl visited with my husband on occasion, would lay her head on his lap or lay at his feet or by his bed. (was dying of cancer)
    She brought him so much joy as we had just lost our yellow lab. Cudoos to her trainer, Catherine.

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