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Best friends separated by COVID restrictions

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He’s a man’s best friend. But for now he has to be content with fleeting cuddles.

Chico, a four-year-old chihuahua, became a companion dog for Bernie Gagne, a Rainycrest resident who has limited mobility, and minimal sight. Although he didn’t like the idea of a dog to begin with, his daughter convinced him it would be a good idea. She brought Chico to meet Gagne, and the one-year-old pup immediately jumped on Bernie’s lap for cuddles.

“We’ve been together ever since,” said Bernie.

For the past three years, Chico has accompanied Gagne to doctor’s appointments in Fort Frances, and to specialists appointments in Thunder Bay.

“He’s a very comforting dog,” said Gagne. “He brings me so much joy and comfort. I have limited sight, but he’s something I can touch and feel. I can pet him and tell him he’s a good boy.”

But that changed with COVID-19. Because he’s a resident of Rainycrest, he wasn’t able to have Chico full-time. Gagne’s daughter was keeping Chico at night. When she moved to Winnipeg, the task fell to Gagne’s longtime friend Theresa Bolen. But because of fears that pet fur can carry COVID-19 viruses, pets are no longer allowed in Long-term care homes.

As a compromise, Bernie offered to keep Chico’s visits to Fridays. But several weeks ago, he was told by staff that even those weekly visits would need to stop, to be in compliance with provincial regulations.

It’s caused frustration for Gagne, who misses the comfort and companionship of Chico. The loss has been felt by other residents, too , he said.

“He’s such a loving dog,” said Gagne. “He can sense when people need him.”

Gagne would often take Chico around to visit other residents, he said. When they would stop by a neighbour who was feeling down, Chico would jump up for a cuddle.

“He’s a therapy dog for everyone,” said Gagne, who got the most benefit from Chico.

“I don’t know how he knows, but he always knows when I need him. He can sense I’m down, and will come up and cuddle into my face,” said Gagne. “He’s not a big dog, but he helps me. I’ll go to get up into my wheelchair, and I’ll say ‘ok, I need a little help,’ and Chico will put his front paws on my back to help me.”

Visits with his dog are now limited to a one-minute cuddle, once every week or two, with gloves on, as he’s being transported back to Rainycrest after dialysis. Bolen will bring the dog and wait for him. Chico knows when his friend is nearby - when the handi-bus pulls up, he gets excited and his heart starts to race, she said.

“He knows,” said Bolen. “He gets so excited to see Bernie.”

Gagne and Bolen have been working to find a way to reunite Chico with Rainycrest, but have so far, hit many dead ends. Gagne is hoping to appeal directly with the Ministry of Health and provincial politicians. Until then, the situation has been hard on all Rainycrest staff.

“We understand these restrictions along with others have been very difficult on our residents, their families and friends, as well as our staff, but have been necessary to ensure everyone’s safety,” said Henry Gauthier, Riverside President & CEO. “We are greatly appreciative for everyone’s understanding and patience as we navigate this situation together. We continue to await more news on the province’s gradual, staged resumption of visits at long-term care homes, and are hopeful that many of our residents will be able to reunite with more of their loved ones including their pets as further restrictions are lifted.”

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