Monday, 17 December 2018
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Poppy, beloved assistance dog that worked at Canuck Place, dies of cancer

The popular Golden Retriever, who trained with the Pacific Assistance Dogs Society, was 11 years old.

Poppy, a beloved therapy dog who worked at Canuck Place hospice providing comfort to children, has died of cancer. HANDOUT. / PNG

They say all dogs go to heaven, but never will there be a grander welcoming than for Poppy, a beloved assistance dog who worked at Canuck Place Children’s Hospice, providing comfort to sick and terminally ill kids.

The popular golden retriever died Tuesday after an aggressive battle with cancer. She was 11 years old.

“There’s a lot of heartbroken people right now,” said Cherie Ehlert, between cracks in her voice.

Ehlert’s daughter, Charlie-Anne, has spinal muscular atrophy and first met Poppy years ago as a toddler. Ehlert said Charlie-Anne, now 9, was “howling” when she was told Poppy had died.

“She (Poppy) got sick like all the kids do,” Cherie said.

Poppy first arrived at the Pacific Assistance Dogs Society through a puppy exchange program with Ontario’s National Service Dogs in 2007. PADS spokeswoman Tara Doherty was among those who worked with Poppy during her training as a puppy.

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Early on, the dog showed promise and had all the qualities needed to be an accredited facility dog (AFD), work that not every canine is suited for. Doherty said what set Poppy apart from other dogs was how calm she could be, even if a patient was not.

“What I loved about watching Poppy work was — she would just choose who needed her and kind of settle in with them. If someone else approached, she would almost turn her shoulder a little bit like, ‘No, this is who needs me right now.’ ”

When Poppy was 2 1/2 years old, she was placed with Dr. Hal Siden, a pediatric palliative care expert and medical director for Canuck Place. Poppy then went to work at the Vancouver hospice.

There, Poppy frequently joined families on outings, participated in counselling sessions, provided end-of-life comfort and spent time with individual children and their families.

Poppy, born July 2007, is a therapy dog that worked at Canuck Place and was trained at Pacific Assistance Dogs Society. She died on Nov. 13, 2018 due to cancer.


Canuck Place spokeswoman Debbie Butt said Poppy, seen as a colleague by hospice staff, had a “high sensitivity and intuitiveness for humans who were hurting.” She said the dog would often approach someone and wait for their reaction before getting closer.

“What Poppy taught us is that we have to be patient with others and that’s really important in palliative care,” she said. “It’s important about being human and being with other people.”

Butt estimates Poppy has interacted with thousands of kids at Canuck Place during her time there.

“People are sharing wonderful memories and condolences and Instagram posts,” said Butt. “There are parents saying, ‘You’ll meet my–’ and then they’ll name their child. ‘You’re going to see her in heaven.’”

The canine also inspired a best-selling children’s book called The Dog written by Helen Mixter and illustrated by Margarita Sada. The book explores the comforting relationship between a child and their canine companion, particularly during difficult times.

Ehlert spoke to Postmedia News about witnessing Poppy’s impact up close. Her daughter Charlie-Anne has limited mobility and as a result isn’t a fan of dogs and can’t move to avoid them when they jump and lick.

But Poppy is one of only two dogs Charlie-Anne is fond of, having first met the patient dog seven years ago during a visit to Canuck Place. Charlie-Anne has since visited Canuck Place multiple times and each time Poppy is the familiar face that greets her and that keeps her company when Ehlert has to step away.

“As a mom dropping off your fragile child, you feel vulnerable,” said Ehlert.

During one such visit a staff member snapped a photo of Poppy comforting Charlie-Anne in bed and sent it to Ehlert. The mom said it was a comfort knowing her daughter was at ease with the ever-faithful Poppy by her side.

“That picture just knocks me out, them looking into each other’s eyes and my daughter completely relaxed and trusting. I love that picture.”

Poppy, an accredited facility dog, is pictured in this undated photo with Charlie-Anne Cox, who has Spinal Muscular Atrophy, at Canuck Place in Vancouver, B.C. Poppy died on Nov. 13, 2018 due to cancer but had worked at Canuck Place for 8.5 years.


Doherty said it’s stories like Ehlert’s that hammer home the importance of assistance dogs like Poppy.

“As an organization, it’s why we do what we do. It’s not, by any stretch of the imagination, an easy task to train dogs from rowdy little puppies into these serene creatures that go out into the world,” said Doherty of the non-profit’s mission. “But dogs like Poppy are what make it all worthwhile because they’re the home runs and the success stories.

“We can’t make Poppy the amazing dog that she is — we just come along for the ride,” she said.

Quick facts about accredited facility dogs

• There are 34 working accredited facility dogs across Canada.

• Dogs chosen to become AFDs aren’t just calm and well-behaved, they also gravitate toward those who are upset or worried without taking on the surrounding stress themselves.

• AFDs work in schools, hospitals and health care, in courtrooms and with victim- and child-advocacy groups.

• They’re typically Labrador or golden retrievers and each AFD can cost up to $25,000 to breed, raise, train and support the dog during its career.


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