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Dog brings happiness to Abbotsford Regional Hospital

Winston, a four-year-old therapy dog, happily relaxes in the arms of Christina Lawton at Abbotsford Regional Hospital.  - Tyler Olsen
Winston, a four-year-old therapy dog, happily relaxes in the arms of Christina Lawton at Abbotsford Regional Hospital.
— image credit: Tyler Olsen

With an awkward gait, a bunched-up nose, and an overly long tongue that rarely retracts into his mouth, four-year-old Winston isn’t going to ever win any beauty pageants.

But in Abbotsford Regional Hospital’s pediatrics ward, Shelley Horvat’s awkward-looking pug is a superstar.

“He’s famous in here!” a nurse had explained to onlookers as Winston nonchalantly strolled past the reception desk Friday morning.

Soon after, he was perched across the legs of Christina Lawton, a 17-year-old patient with a low platelet count visiting the ward as an outpatient since April.

Winston’s presence was a bonus – a nice way to pass the time as she waited to begin her treatment.

For younger patients, Winston can bring moments of joy, calm and exuberance to a scary and difficult moment in their young lives. That doesn’t make him unique among animals, but Winston seems to have a special appeal, said Horvat, a vet at Fraser Valley Animal Hospital who volunteers her and Winston’s time once a week.

Winston has been visiting the ward since the start of the year, but already Horvat has seen the remarkable effect her little pug can have.

She tells the story of one boy who woke up on Winston’s regularly scheduled visiting day asking about the imminent arrival of his four-legged friend. On Winston’s previous visit, the boy had smiled for the first time since he was admitted to the hospital, his mother told Horvat.

Some kids may see a bit of themselves in Winston, who has dealt with his own health issues since birth.

Winston is a rescue case, alive today only because Horvat adopted the young pug from a breeder after it was learned that Winston had been born with several congenital diseases, the most serious of which resulted in narrow vertebrae that disrupt the messages Winston’s brain sends to his feet. Winston can still walk, but he’s not the most co-ordinated of dogs. He also has hip dysplasia and trouble breathing.

After his adoption, one of Horvat’s co-workers would frequently dog-sit Winston. That co-worker had children with their own health problems who grew to love the awkward-looking creature.

“They kind of related to him because they both had diseases,” Horvat said.

That bond, and the happiness the children got from Winston, spurred Horvat to get involved with Pets & Friends, a non-profit organization that matches animals and their owners with medical patients and facilities. Studies show that dogs decrease stress among patients of all ages, and Winston is just one of nine therapy dogs that visits ARH on a regular basis (St. John Ambulance also provides therapy dogs). Hospital patients are even permitted to bring pets into the building, provided they are calm and won’t trigger allergies among nearby patients.

“Winston works well because he’s funny-looking and he’s friendly, and he’s small enough that he can crawl on the bed with them,” said Horvat.

Susie Clark, a child life specialist at the ward who works to match Winston with kids who would enjoy his presence, agreed.

“There’s something about the unconditional love and that playful nature that dogs have that fits them,” Clark said. “They can talk about their own dogs or the dogs that they know instead of thinking about the IV pole or what test is coming up next.”

Comfortable in the arms of Christina Lawton at Abbotsford Regional Hospital, Winston samples the hand of Lawton’s boyfriend, John Burrows.

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