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Almost every Tuesday afternoon, Tari and Thorne visit a community home in St. Vital where four adult men with intellectual and developmental disabilities live together. Tari, age 8, and Thorne, 3, are not human, but that doesn’t mean they can’t make a big difference as volunteers. In fact, they’re made for the job.

Tari and Thorne are Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, a sweet-tempered breed that is playful, loving, and highly-dependent on human companionship.

Michael is in his 30s and has lived in the home for 24 years.

When Pat and Edwin Nicholls visited with their dogs this week, Michael was rocking back and forth in his comfy chair.

True to their heritage as “comforter dogs”, Tari and Thorne took turns hopping onto Michael’s lap and sitting on the arm rest. Michael would offer them biscuits and stroke their long feathery ears for a few moments before gently brushing them off his lap.

However brief, these moments of positive connection between Michael and the dogs are undeniable.

Michael’s face broadens into a smile every time he feeds one of the pups a cookie.

Edwin and Pat have been married for 47 years and have been bringing their pets to St.Amant School, St.Amant Daycare, and to the community home for the last three years.

Edwin is a retired resources teacher who worked with students with disabilities. He was picking up meals from 440 River Road to deliver for Meals for Wheels when he learned about volunteer opportunities at St.Amant.

He’s been volunteering at St.Amant for 15 years, and finds it a meaningful part of his life.

“I found out how much they value us. We are well-treated and appreciated by St.Amant,” Edwin said.

On this visit, Michael’s three housemates didn’t take an interest in the dogs, but that’s okay, said Pat. They can visit if they want to, but there are no expectations.

And while the dogs will always take all the affection they can get, they don’t mind if someone’s not in the mood to play.

“Our dogs don’t pick favourites,” she said.

During this week’s visit, keyworker Eric Wright served a tray of coffee and cookies while Edwin and Pat sat back and relaxed.

The dogs know what to do without being told. Tari and Thorne walked around the living room sniffing things, being soft and adorable, and always ready to show some affection, but not too much.

Being gentle is important, especially considering that people living in community homes might not be accustomed to having an animal around.

The pet visitor program helps provide opportunities for people with disabilities to successfully integrate into a full community life.  “Since we retired, this gives us things to do…a chance to be out visiting with people. Not to mention the cookies,” Edwin said.

On Mondays, the couple also volunteer in the pool at 440 River Road, spending time in the water and working one on one with students from preschool up to age 21.

St.Amant currently has six volunteer dogs in the pet visitor program, but more are welcome. St.Amant Volunteer Services currently has a waiting list of community homes that are looking for pet visitors.

For information, contact Tracy Laluk, Manager of Volunteer Services at 204-258-7048 or tlaluk@stamant.ca.

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