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Pet Therapy with Phoenix Canine Initiative

Sara Dodd is the founder of the Phoenix Canine Initiative, a pet therapy service that works with children and adults who experience stress and stressful situations in their everyday lives. With her dog Maggie, Sara visits first responders, children and adults in the London and St. Thomas Ontario area. Sara brought Maggie to meet with us and to talk about pet therapy and the future of her organization. Thank you Sara for sharing about what you do and bringing Maggie to the interview.

How did the Phoenix Canine Initiative start and how has it evolved since its beginning?

I saw a need for support -- for people who suffered from distress and experienced trauma. Pet therapy is excellent for de-stressing and for creating calmness when the person doesn’t know how to soothe themselves. In areas of high stress work environments it also assists the front line staff. I have been a Registered Nurse for 16 years and my husband’s background is with the Fire Dept. When my husband would have a difficult shift he would come home and lie on the ground with the dogs to feel a sense of relief. Animals are fantastic for calming people down because they can distract whoever is around. We want to help people who have experienced trauma and also visit first responders at fire halls and EMS stations.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your co-worker Maggie?

Maggie is an amazing 8-year-old chocolate lab who is really cuddly and appropriate with kids, took to training very well and is very stable in other environments. She gets excited with other dogs and always wants to play.

What would you say to someone who knows nothing about using pets as a therapeutic coping tool?

I would say try it! Especially for people who are on the fence and aren’t sure if they will like it or not. But I do find that it’s difficult for people who are not dog lovers. Also, a phenomenal transformation happens when you pet a dog. It’s a brief interaction with a calm and soothing, living creature-- it is very beneficial!

What are some misconceptions about pet therapy? How could someone go about erasing the stigma?

The misconception around service dogs vs. therapy dogs, there is a big difference. A service dog is a medical device for one person, whereas a therapy dog is for everyone, it spreads love and joy. I would love to get that message out in the world and to get rid of that misconception.

What sort of difficulties does pet therapy assist? Who would benefit the most from your services?

We work with children in foster care who are going for supervised visits with their parents. Bringing the dog to the visit engages both the children and parents, in a way that the parents wouldn’t be engaged. The parents can relate and show affection to a dog which may promote a better relationship between them and their children, and their children can see how their parents act! It is a pilot project with CAS and it seems to be working well for children and their parents. We also visit people while they’re at work, especially if they work in high stress environments.

What kinds of challenges do you experience when working at Phoenix Canine Initiative?

Funding definitely. Everything is out of pocket and volunteer based. We are working on some ongoing funding ideas, such as having a line of pet products, including soaps, shampoos, paw wax, ear cleaner etc. 100% of the proceeds will go to PCI. I am testing them on my human friends and making them human grade so they are safe for pets. As well as we are using locally sourced products and are using environmentally sustainable materials for the products.

Do you have a goal as an organization? What are your next steps?

A goal would be the expansion of teams. We need more people on board to meet the demand. We plan on holding information sessions to talk about how it’s run, what things there are to do so that people who are interested can be a part of the organization. As well as continuing to establish the pet products.

How would someone access your services?

Through the facebook page. I am quick at responding to any questions.

Why don’t you use cats? This isn’t a serious question.

With the training I’ve done, I could work with 9 different species, including horses, rats and cats. Dogs are my specialty and I don’t see cats and rats in my future.

Do young people and adults react the same to pet therapy?

It’s a universal feeling, it brings the same sense of joy to everyone, no matter their age. Children and adults both express the same excitement when the dog enters the room.

What are you looking for in a good team member?

They have to have their own dog, and the dog has to pass the evaluation. The dog also has to love the work! I would like the team to be peer driven -- so including people who have experience with the Fire Dept., the Police, EMS or social work services. There’s nothing like having someone that has walked it. And it’s not crucial, but I have critical stress management training, so if they did, that would be helpful.