Polar and Turi are two very busy Newfoundland dogs, busy helping others. They live with their humans, Mac and Moe McKinnon, in Midland, Ontario. Polar started it all when he was called upon to help calm down a violently upset patient at a local hospital where Moe worked. Since the gentleman had a photo of a dog in his room Moe was asked to go home and get her Newf to help prevent both staff and the patient from getting hurt. Within 10 minutes Polar walked into the room and the patient immediately calmed down. After about 45 minutes Polar had done his job and then went to other rooms to visit – he was a natural.
Then as Moe became more mobility challenged due to a balance ailment, Polar got a special harness and learned to be a mobility assistance dog. But this was just the start. Mac and Moe joined Therapeutic Paws of Canada and got both of their Newfs certified as therapy dogs. Upon the retirement of the Team Leader for Midland, the couple took over this role. However visiting seniors in residences was not enough of a challenge, although they still do this. Next level was to have the Newfs visit the maximum security unit of the Waypoint Centre for Mental Health in nearby Penetanguishene. This was another big success as the unconditional love of Newfs won over the residents completely.
Next door to the Psychiatric Hospital is the Central North Correctional Centre, a maximum security provincial jail. Mac was and still is the Chair of the Community Advisory Board for this facility. About four years ago the suggestion for visits to the prisoners came up and all the board members thought it was wonderful idea. Jail officials and union reps were approached and after about two years of negotiations it looked like this would become a reality.
Therapeutic Paws of Canada does not yet sanction therapy visits to a jail (Waypoint was okay because it is a “hospital”). This meant no insurance coverage through Therapeutic Paws. Mac, resourceful as ever, checked with his home insurance provider and to his surprise found they were okay with correctional institution visits and they would be covered.
Then just as the initiative was about to be approved, which would have been a first for an Ontario correctional facility, an unforeseen incident caused the program to be put on hold indefinitely. Most people would have given up at this point but not Mac and Moe. They persevered for another two years. The break happened when the Centre’s psychiatrist became supportive of the visits particularly for prisoners suffering from mental health issues (about 30% of inmates are in this category).
The door was finally opened, even if only a crack. Baby steps is what Mac calls it and that reminds me of the old and wise saying “A journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step”. It was six year old Turi who was called upon to take that first step. First candidates would be four male mentally ill prisoners who had volunteered for these sessions. Turi and Moe were led to room that had observation windows and Moe was seated. A correctional officer was standing in the room and other staff watched (but could not hear) from outside. The inmates were to be brought in one by one for approximately 15 minutes each. Turi and Moe had an hour to make this work or four years would be down the drain.
Fortunately Turi turned on the Newfie charm and had the inmates on the floor petting her and talking to both her and Moe while oblivious to the guard standing over them. Turi in mere minutes took away their stress and Moe was surprised at how open they became. One prisoner even let her know that he was on the verge of a break down and about to do something drastic but now felt he could cope.
Thursday visits with Turi or Polar are now a regular feature at the jail with five individual sessions of up to 15 minutes. Also there is no longer a correctional officer in the room enabling the inmates to open up even more. At a recent get together for Correctional Centre volunteers, Mac and Moe were highly commended by the Superintendent and other senior staff. The canine visitation program is going to be featured in an upcoming edition of a magazine for correctional staff across the province so hopefully it will spread not only within the Central North Correctional Centre but also to other jails in the province.
Fifteen minutes may not be a long time but if spent with a Newfoundland it can be amazing!
Peter Maniate has been writing columns for the Newf News, the magazine of the Newfoundland Dog Club of Canada, since 1979. In 1996 he started writing a Newfoundland dog column in the Breedlines section of Dogs in Canada magazine on behalf of the Newfoundland Dog Club of Canada. When Dogs in Canada ceased publication at the end of 2011 he continued the Breedlines column in the Newf Newfs.
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