After 13 years, Mac the golden retriever will no longer wear the blue-and-yellow vest that identified him as a working dog.
The canine counsellor — the Pacific Assistance Dog Society’s (PADS) longest-serving member — retired last week after a career that saw him become the first registered therapy dog in the world to work with a counsellor in a non-residential setting.
He was also the first to work full time in a hospice and the first to work as a therapy dog with students at the University of the Fraser Valley.
“He’s a trailblazer — or maybe we should say a tail-blazer,” said his owner Dawn Holt, a clinical counsellor who works in UFV’s counselling department. “I think some of those firsts are due to him doing it for so long.”
In addition to supporting students, Mac has helped dozens of people across B.C. through traumatic events, including some of the province’s biggest disasters. He received an “Above and Beyond” award for selflessness in service after the 2017 wildfires. He’s also supported police, consoling officers during funerals, and calmed victims in crisis.
Mac has always had a “calm, mellow, gentle, sweet nature,” said Holt. From his puppy days, he’s been able to detect stress and sadness. “In a room full of people, he’ll go to the person who needs him the most.”
PADS trainers noticed this trait when Mac was young and began to train him as a therapy dog. A volunteer with PADS at the time, Holt began her career as a clinical counsellor at the same time Mac did. The two have always been partners, working in hospice, at UFV and in private practice.
But while Mac is officially retired, he won’t disappear from campus or from his patients’ lives. He can still be seen at the university, albeit without his recognizable vest. Instead, he now wears a UFV T-shirt.
“He doesn’t have that mantle of responsibility anymore,” said Holt.
Students have been surprised to discover that without his vest, Mac is a little more goofy. He’s now allowed to roll around on the campus lawns and sniff bushes.
“I guess he’s been wanting to sniff those bushes for the last 13 years,” quipped Holt. “He knows the difference between the vest, which he wore when he was working, and the T-shirt. He knows the T-shirt is somewhere between full-on work and relaxing at home.”
Holt explained a therapy dog works in two ways. First, they create a physiological response in patients, offering unconditional friendship, which can slow breathing, calm the body and reduce stress hormones. They also work to “build a bridge” between counsellor and patient, calming fears and building trust so the counsellor can do her work.
Mac doesn’t take his work home with him. A good therapy dog can “shake off” a heavy session, literally shaking his coat like he’s just gotten out of a lake.
“I’m so proud of him and the work he’s done,” said Holt.
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