Vol. 80, No. 4Cover stories

Two children pat dog.

Soft touch

Therapy dogs lower anxiety for victims

Using therapy dogs in police interactions with victims has been found to reduce victims' heart rate and blood pressure, and regulate breathing. Credit: RCMP


For victims of crime, especially children, interacting with a therapy dog can ease stress and anxiety that often accompany the experience of retelling tragic personal experiences.

The presence of a dog at the feet of a victim has shown to reduce heart rate and blood pressure, and regulate breathing, helping the person better think through questions and give a more accurate account of what happened to them.

"This will benefit the RCMP entirely because our investigators will get better statements in the beginning, and that will lead to better testimony in court and a higher likelihood that a conviction will happen," says Cst. Holly Erb, program manager for the Victim Services Unit in Red Deer, Alta.

Calming presence

In May, after a two-year wait, Red Deer RCMP Victim Services hired its first K9 staff member. Harley, an affectionate black Labrador retriever, celebrated his second birthday by laying his head gently in the lap of a seven-year-old victim as she told her story to police.

"Any time children, or anybody, come to a police station, they're usually not there for something that's good," says Harley's handler, Susan Bontje, who's also a full-time administrative assistant with the unit. "Having him sitting there just seems to be a calming thing — that maybe this isn't such a scary place."

During an interaction with a therapy dog, participants might touch and cuddle the dog, or simply carry out activities while the dog sits nearby.

Of all of Harley's clients, children appear to benefit the most from his presence. Bontje says Harley instinctively senses when someone is in emotional distress and lays on their feet.

Harley works the same hours as his handler — Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Though he's allowed to walk about when he wants to, Harley spends most of the day resting quietly on a mat beside Bontje's desk. Throughout the day, he entertains detachment employees and visitors, but is really at his best when a victim of crime comes in for an interview or to prepare for court.

"A person who's traumatized by a crime already has a heightened emotional baseline," says Erb. "So if we don't have Harley, or any therapy dog, there to help bring down those stress symptoms then they would have a much more traumatic time going through the criminal justice system. And I believe that that trauma would just extend through the rest of their life."

For now, the unit in Red Deer is only accepting requests for Harley's services in court from Crown prosecutors in the city, but hopes to expand to surrounding areas in the future.

Non-judgmental support

At the RCMP's Nanaimo detachment in British Columbia, no one was able to take on the full-time duties of a dog handler. So, in the spring of 2017, Nanaimo Victim Services began a partnership with St. John Ambulance for the use of the organization's volunteer therapy dogs.

Now, every Monday afternoon, Hudson, a six-year-old Golden Doodle, spends two hours sitting calmly and greeting passersby in the lobby of the detachment. In addition to the weekly drop-in to the detachment, the unit also requests therapy dog services as needed for specific assignments.

"The dogs are non-judgmental, they show unconditional love, and they're there to provide that support that many others can't," says Cheryl Zapotichny, program manager of Nanaimo RCMP Victim Services. "There's just a magic with them."

Zapotichny recalls one incident when a dog's presence calmed a particularly distraught victim and helped her effectively communicate her thoughts to support staff.

"There was some crying and worrying when she first arrived, but when she was able to pat the dog and talk to the dog, you could see that easing up," says Zapotichny. "The crying stopped and she was able to do what she needed to do to get through that moment."

Just like Harley's good temperament and natural ability to sense people's emotions, a good therapy dog must also be calm, keen, eager to work, comfortable in public and be able to shake off the negative energy from the day, says Doreen Slessor, executive director for the dog therapy school Dogs with Wings.

While some organizations, like Dogs with Wings, breed the animals to have these particular traits, others recruit dogs from shelters, or, as in Harley's case, retrain dogs from other therapy programs.

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