Four legs, wagging tails and wet noses. The new volunteers at the Kelowna RCMP detachment are less than conventional, but they're helping employees cope with stress and improve their health.
Earlier this year, seven therapy dogs visited the RCMP building as part of an eight-week collaborative research program called B.A.R.K. — Building Academic Retention through K9s.
Although the program originally began as a way to improve the mental health of university students, Supt. Brent Mundle thought the dogs could also have a positive impact in a policing environment.
My main goal is to improve employee well-being and offer as many supports as possible," says Mundle, the officer in charge of the Kelowna Regional RCMP detachment. "
I thought this could be a different and unique way to reduce stress and help employees build resiliency."
The program started as a research project at the University of British Columbia (UBC), directed by social psychologist and UBC professor John-Tyler Binfet. He studies the effects of animal therapy on students' well-being, with the goal of reducing stress and combatting homesickness.
When Mundle approached Binfet about bringing the program to the Kelowna RCMP detachment, he jumped at the chance.
I just dove in and found that there are similarities between the population that I serve — university students who have compromised mental health — and police employees," says Binfet. "
In both cases, we saw heightened stress levels and an accumulation of stress."
The pilot project at the Kelowna detachment began in January this year, and lasted eight weeks. This is the first long-term study involving therapy dogs and the stress levels of RCMP employees.
On average, four therapy dogs visited the detachment once per week for 90-minute drop-in sessions. The dogs were available to all employees in the building.
About 250 RCMP employees participated in the sessions, and many of them were repeat customers. Most people stayed for the length of a coffee break — just 12 minutes. As part of the study, Binfet had each RCMP employee rank their stress level on a scale of one to five before and after the therapy dog visit.
The research team is now compiling the results of the project. Binfet says their initial analysis shows that employees came out of the sessions feeling less stressed than when they entered. This comes as no surprise to Binfet.
Dogs are social catalysts, they lower your defence mechanisms, and render an individual more open to receiving help," he says. "
They also make people more open to establishing social connections that will bolster their well-being."
A happier detachment
Mundle has seen first-hand how therapy dogs can help police officers and employees recover from a traumatic event. He was in St. Albert, Alta., when RCMP Cst. David Wynn was shot and killed in 2015.
One employee would visit the detachment with their service dog and it really made a difference for everyone there," he says. "
It made me think about the value of having a therapy dog available even before a critical incident happens."
While the RCMP does have mental health supports for employees, there are few pre-emptive resources that target daily stress and address issues before they get out of hand. That's why Mundle decided to bring the dog therapy program to Kelowna detachment. So far, he's been met with a flurry of positive feedback.
Kelowna RCMP employee Karen Bamford says she went to see the dogs every week they were at the detachment.
Whenever I came back to my desk the big joke was 'did you just go see the dogs?' Everyone around me could tell," she says. "
Even on days when I didn't feel stressed out, I would still go see the dogs. And every single time I came out, I felt even better."
Bamford says the positive effect of interacting with the dogs has carried into other parts of her life.
The little things like deadlines become more manageable afterwards," she says. "
It's the ripple effect, it alters the environment."
Mundle says he hopes the project will continue at his detachment, and others across the country.
This project helps break down barriers around mental health and encourages discussions," he says. "
I've noticed more smiles on faces, everyone is a little more upbeat."