The therapist walked into the room and scanned the men before him. You could tell he was happy to be there. For one thing, he was wagging his tail.
“Argon!” Alain Cyr said at the sight of the dog. “Argon, come here!”
Seated around the room were men thrown hard against a wall of life’s misfortunes. They are grey-bearded and round-shouldered, their faces lined by struggles with liquor, lost hopes and survival on the streets. But at the sight of Argon, their eyes lit up like the bulbs on the Mount Royal cross. Argon is a therapy dog at La Maison du Père homeless shelter in Montreal, and if the outside world treats these men as pariahs, Argon treats them as the most important thing in his three-year-old life.
“He helps us want to live,” said Yvon Gendreau, a quiet man who spent years sleeping on a concrete slab in the park after his wife died, leaving him lost and destitute. In the room, Argon approached Mr. Gendreau gently, nuzzling into his lap and licking his hands.
“Argon helps clear my head, instead of me thinking about dying,” Mr. Gendreau said.
La Maison du Père brought in Argon last year as an experiment. No one knew how a mild-tempered Labrador/Bernese mountain dog mix would react in a place where tensions sometimes boil to the surface.
In only 16 months, the dog has become a sought-after attraction, a soft presence among hard lives.
Argon makes the rounds in the downtown shelter with his full-time handler, Angélique Nadeau. Everywhere he goes, hands reach out to touch his glossy fur – calloused hands and nicotine-stained hands, hands with four-letter words tattooed on their fingers and hands with skin cracked from the cold and concrete outside.
“We didn’t realize all the good and the stability he would bring, and how attached the guys would feel to him,” said Ms. Nadeau, a caseworker. “In some cases, they have nobody. The dog is a little like family.”
Just as important, the dog “doesn’t discriminate,” she said. “He doesn’t judge how you’re dressed, if you’ve lost weight or whatever. He’ll just be happy to see you.”
Ms. Nadeau began regular sessions at the shelter last year called “Parlons avec Argon” (Let’s Talk with Argon). At first, two men showed up. Then Argon became better known and as many as 12 men were turning up at the door. In one recent session, where a Christmas tree sat in the corner and cookies and hot coffee sat on a meal cart, the men talked about their painful memories of the holidays, some of them recounting childhoods in orphanages and foster homes.
“I’ve seen some of them just start to pat Argon, and emotions start to flare up,” Ms. Nadeau said. “Without a dog, they wouldn’t come and open up about personal things.”
Mr. Cyr, 63, spent years sleeping in a cardboard box behind a Best Buy on downtown Ste. Catherine Street. During the day, before moving into the shelter full-time, he sat with a cap upturned on the sidewalk, relying on the kindness of strangers.
“I feel comfort when Argon is around,” he said. “He understands me and I understand him. He’s a companion in my life.”
Argon illustrates the benefits of therapy dogs in a social-services setting such as La Maison du Père, whose mission is not just to offer a meal and a bed but also help homeless men get back on their feet and return to functioning lives.
Administrators at the shelter thought of bringing in a dog and approached the Mira Foundation, a non-profit group east of Montreal that trains therapy and guide dogs. The foundation settled on Argon, whose personality meshed with the shelter’s needs.
“He’s an extremely calm dog,” said Nicolas St-Pierre, general manager of the foundation. “The men don’t necessarily look conventional. We needed a dog that would be very loving. He was perfect. With him, there’s no mistrust.”
In a short time, Argon became a bit of a mascot, moving around like a reassuring figure among the more than 500 men who use the shelter and residence each day. Staff have seen Argon walk into a room when a resident was in a rage and lower the temperature just by being there. They have seen men, unaccustomed to following rules, agree to keep their rooms clean and smoke-free to earn the privilege of allowing the dog inside.
Men have confided to Ms. Nadeau that they improve their behaviour around Argon. “'I want him to be as happy to see me as I am to see him,'” they tell her.
Studies show therapy dogs can reduce stress and increase the ability to form and express attachments, providing a safe outlet for emotions.
“Showing affection to a dog is so much safer because your chances of rejection are very small – as opposed to showing you affection to another person,” said Lori Kogan, a psychologist at Colorado State University and editor of the Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin.
“The dogs provide a sense of unconditional affection, especially for this population of men that might have a really hard time displaying or receiving affection from other people,” she said. “Nobody’s touching them and we know that it’s critical for human mental health. So being able to get some of that physical affection from a dog could be really helpful.”
One recent day, a resident in La Maison du Père’s residence showed up at Ms. Nadeau’s office door asking if he could take Argon out to play in the interior courtyard. For about 15 minutes, the man threw a ball in the snow and Argon fetched it, returning over and over.
Before Argon’s arrival at La Maison du Père, the resident rarely left his room. Now he was outdoors, laughter creasing his face. He leaned over to hug the dog. Argon may be a therapist but he was also his friend, even if he drooled a bit.