With the help of her furry sidekick, Loki, Valerie hopes to discover if a service dog can provide long-term benefits for children living with cerebral palsy.
Ph.D candidate, Health Sciences program, College of Medicine, University of Saskatchewan
M.P.T., University of Saskatchewan, ’15
B.Sc., Bishop’s University, ’12
Graduate grant in 2021 and 2022
Valerie Caron knew choosing to study science would enable her to find ways to give back to her community, but it wasn’t until she started her Master’s degree that neuroscience piped her interest.
“I was volunteering with Equilibrium Therapeutic Riding in Osler, Saskatchewan. They offer a therapeutic riding program, where children and adults living with a neurological condition can visit a horse-riding barn and engage in therapeutic lessons,” Caron said. Lessons were tailored for each individual, and Caron worked alongside children living with a variety of neurological conditions. “Seeing the integration of therapy with a social and physical activity, and the development of the social skills and independence it led to for the children, is what helped me realize neuroscience is where I wanted to set my focus.”
Cerebral palsy is the number one neurological condition affecting gross motor function in Canada, affecting 1 in every 1000 births. Because it impacts postural control, or the ability to sense where you are in the space around you, it makes walking and balance incredibly difficult.
Now a Ph.D. student at the University of Saskatchewan, and with her experience in animal-assisted therapy, Caron was approached to join a new project that is looking at integrating a rehabilitation dog into interventions that are focused on walking and balance for children living with cerebral palsy. Her supervisors are Dr. Sarah Donkers and Dr. Alison Oates.
The star of the study is Loki, a 4-year-old Labrador Bernese Mountain dog that was purchased from the Fondation Mira, in Montreal, the first organization that trains rehabilitation dogs. Funding for the purchase came from a Collaborative Innovation Development Grant provided by the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation.
During the tests, Loki acts as an external, dynamic walking aid for children, in contrast to more traditional aids like a cane or walker. By being a support that can move on his own, Loki removes the cognitive element of children having to learn to use a new tool, allowing them to focus solely on their balance.
“For children with cerebral palsy, it is very difficult for their brains to process walking and being aware of their environment at the same time. It becomes even more challenging when they are unable to keep their balance,” Caron explains. “Traditional aids may help with balance, but they also add cognition or attentional demands because the children would need to learn how to use a new tool at the same time. By introducing Loki, we are able to remove the cognitive element, as he is a support that moves on his own. The children can then focus solely on their balance and walking ability.”
Loki is also an excellent support for the children in new or busy environments, as he provides stability when navigating tricky obstacles such as stairs, curbs, or a crowd.
Caron is present at each trial and is closely monitoring Loki’s impact at specific moments. In time and with enough study, she hopes that the findings in this study can help future health care professionals determine when it would be most beneficial to introduce a service dog into rehabilitation settings, as well as increase access for personal-use service dogs.
“Some of the questions we are hoping to answer include: does this child show improvement overtime from working with Loki? Which children would benefit the most from a full-time service animal?” Caron said. “Ultimately, we want to find the balance between if any impact or improvement we’re seeing is long-lasting, or specific to only when interacting with a service dog.”
In addition to his work in Caron’s study, Loki finds other ways to give back. This past year, he was present at vaccine clinics in Saskatoon, where he met and interacted with people in what can be a stressful environment for some. With about five years of work remaining in his life, the goal is to integrate Loki into a community clinic setting within the next few years.
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The Branch Out Neurological Foundation requires proof of clearance for all research proposals that involve human or animal ethics before funding is provided.
Caron, Valerie, Falaye, Christa, et al. Balance and Walking Rehabilitation for Children Living With Cerebral Palsy Through The Lens of The Adapted Systems Framework for Postural Control: A Systematic Review. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Volume 102, Issue 10, e123. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apmr.2021.07.495
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