CANASSIST Trauma, Emotional Support and Therapy Dogs

​Service, Victim Assistance, Trauma, Emotional Support and Therapy Dogs

​In the research study Victimology and Trauma Studies – Bridging Perspectives in a Landscape of Practice, research into animal assisted interventions demonstrates that animals are now used in supportive roles in many settings in Canada, including prisons, schools, hospitals, courtrooms, victims’ services and in clinician settings. Murphy, a St. John Ambulance therapy dog, made history in late September 2017 by being the first therapy dog allowed into a hospital Emergency Room in Canada. There are approximately 400 working therapy dog teams working in the province, and over 3,300 dog and handler teams working across Canada. ​

In addition to the police dogs who participate in search and rescue work, help to apprehend suspects and whose keen sense of smell helps them to detect drugs and explosives, there are new roles filled by canines in police victim services programs, veteran support programs, and more. These animals can provide a calming influence in very emotional situations. For example, many people experiencing trauma, the comfort of human touch is not always possible. Emotional support dogs are able to provide that touch in a safe and gentle way. There is evidence that the benefit of these interactions with animals, and in particular dogs, are breaking down more barriers to provide support for people in need.

Hawk, a 4-year old black Labrador Retriever, was the first trauma dog to enter a courtroom in Calgary, taking his place on the witness stand beside a child who was testifying in a sexual assault trial. In Alberta existing law allows for ‘people’ to support vulnerable witnesses, but the court was asked to made an exception to approve a victim assistance dog to be the support for the child. Even the lawyer who represented the accused in the case, acknowledged the value in having Hawk present. It’s the atmosphere for the child… judges see it as a better atmosphere for the child and why wouldn’t they allow that,” Alain Helpner said (Global News, 2014). There are currently 10 other trauma dogs working victims and witnesses of crime in Canada, including law enforcement departments in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario. Caber, a yellow lab, is currently working with the Delta, B.C. Police Department.

The St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog program began in Saskatchewan in 2007 and now has over one hundred volunteer dog and handler teams across Canada. Colleen Dell PhD, who was the Research Chair in Substance Abuse at the University of Saskatchewan between 2007 and 2016, participated in the therapy dog program with her boxer, Kisbey. The team regularly visited prisoners in a federal correctional institution in Saskatchewan—the Regional Psychiatric Centre (RPC). The RPC is a facility with both male and female prisoners. Participation is optional for the prisoners. Kisbey, the therapy dog, typically visited with each inmate every two weeks for a total of about ten times (over approximately 20 weeks). All the participants chosen by staff have complicated mental health histories including childhood trauma, mental illness, substance abuse and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Dell said in personal correspondence, “I was just there. I didn’t talk or interact myself. It was all up to the dog and the person she was visiting – that connection was between them” (2016). In a review of the therapy dog program, Bell said that therapy dogs can be a helpful bridge for the workers who are interested in “transforming prison, addiction, and mental health care using a trauma-informed approach” and the dog’s interactions can be “a great lesson”. 

Heather Logan, in Truro, Nova Scotia, developed the  “Pawsitive Directions Canine Program” for female inmates with Corrections Services Canada in 1995. The program operated for 15 years. Logan’s program offered three-phases which taught participating inmates the principles of Operant Conditioning Behaviour Analysis (OCBA) dog care and training. A total of 54 Rescue dogs were trained and adopted into the community as Service dogs for stroke and polio survivors, the sight impaired, as autism and cerebral palsy support dogs for children, and for people with various mobility challenges. Heather Logan now trains Service dogs at Cloverfield with graduates of her “Train the Trainer” program.​

The CANASSIST Therapy Dog Program offers an Animal Assisted Therapy – Counselling (AAT-C) Certificate program for clinicians who are interested in integrating a therapy animal in their practice. The program can also provide important mental health background to professional dog trainers so they are better able to meet the needs of clients who need the support of an animal. The CANASSIST program fosters student competence, flexibility and professional skill development that enables mental health clinicians and professional dog trainers to meet the complex demands of today’s clients. CANASSIST ensures that students are actively involved in shaping their learning environment, while implementing new research and ideas in practice. Graduates of the program can become leaders in the field in the areas of professional practice, research, and theoretical development in animal assisted therapeutic interventions. 

HeatherBee Kennels is proud to donate puppies, from time to time, to the CANASSIST program.