Dogs help child victims open up about their experiences

EDMONTON – The Zebra Child Protection Centre’s Very Important Paws (VIP) initiative uses trained Labrador Retrievers during child abuse investigations to help ease the child’s stress.

“What the dogs really provide is comfort, allowing the child to get past the anxiety of having to tell a very painful story,” says Carolyn Thom, a certified child forensic investigator and one of Zebra’s primary dog handlers.

As the young victims make their way through the interview at the Zebra Child Protection Centre and then continue on through the criminal justice system, the dogs – Wren and Fossey – can be right there with them.

“There’s continuity for them,” explains Thom.  “They know that there’s at least one reliable source for them that’s going to follow them through the entire process.”

Thom explains the same dog can be there for the child during interviews, court preparation, and even in court.

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Experts say they’re already witnessing the difference these animals can make.

Thom was supposed to interview a teenage girl who was very hesitant to talk to her because her experience had been so traumatic. Despite all her training, Thom could not get the teenager to open up, and she left the room.

“When I left the interview room, the child was in there with the dog. She got on the floor and started talking to the dog while I was out of the room. I left her in there talking to the dog as long as she needed to.  She said a lot of things to the dog that she wasn’t going to say to me. It was quite amazing.”

All interviews are recorded, so the girl’s story was captured on tape.

“A dog is never going to ask a leading question… They are just there to listen, to not judge kids. It makes kids, I think, appreciate that they’re going to keep their dignity with a dog.”

The Zebra Child Protection Centre became interested in adopting the VIP initiative after hearing about a similar program in the United States.

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The Courthouse Dogs program uses trained dogs to calm children involved in the justice system.  Barb Spencer, Zebra’s CEO, saw a video about how effective the Courthouse Dogs program has been and was motivated to bring it to Edmonton.

“There was a mother talking about the difference the dogs made to her two children who had been sexually assaulted by their biological father,” Spencer recalls. “The dog was sitting off to the side… and [the mother] became emotional, and the dog – with no prompting – moved over and put her head in her lap. The mom started to pet, the calmness came, and you could see her breathing change.”

“I said, ‘that’s my picture of the difference that something that’s so intuitive for this dog can give to the kids who come to Zebra house.’”

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Marley McGonigle, a Social Worker with Alberta Children Services explained the next steps were to find funding and track down suitable trained service dogs.

The VIP dogs are a mother and daughter team named Fossey and Wren, two Yellow Labs ages five and three, who arrived at the Zebra Centre in July 2013.  Now, this is the first program of its kind in Canada.

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The VIP dogs are accredited work dogs owned by the Burnaby-based Public Assistance Dogs Society (PADS).  Wren and Fossey were identified for this kind of assignment as young puppies.

“It’s their temperament that makes them different,” explains McGonigle. “They really like children and their temperament is calm.”

Funding for the Zebra VIP program was provided through grants from TD Bank and a donation from the Edmonton Urban Spirits Rotary Club.

Spencer says the Rotary Club was looking for a program to support, and has adopted the Zebra VIP program as its 10-year legacy initiative. It has provided the financial resources to support the Zebra Child Protection Centre in establishing a long-term relationship with PADS.

Spencer says a service dog’s career is about nine years, but that PADS will provide more animal partners once Wren and Fossey retire.

She says it costs about $5,000 a year per dog, but that there have been a lot of people and organizations offering their support, so sustaining the VIP initiative won’t be an issue.

That’s good news for those working in the justice system.

“The value of having Wren and Fossey at the Zebra Centre is enormous,” says Staff Sgt. Rob Paton with the EPS Child Protection Section.  “Anything that we can do to assist children in telling their story is critical to the difficult investigative process that we deal with daily.”

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Experts say for many kids, telling the story of abuse is the most difficult part of the process, but it is often the most important. The VIP dogs help to build the children’s comfort levels at moments that can be filled with stress, anxiety and traumatizing memories.

“We’ve seen results with the dogs since they’ve come in where the dog has been able to relax the child so much that… we’ve been successful in having the child open up and tell us about their experience,” adds Paton.  “That’s an invaluable tool.”

“There’s nothing that the dogs are going to do that’s going to interfere with obtaining a robust disclosure from a child,” adds Thom.

Spencer says, in addition to helping kids, Wren and Fossey are helping staff.

“When they’ve had a horrific interview over at headquarters… or they’ve had to attend a home where there’s been a baby injured , the dogs’ presence here, there’s automatically a gravitation to them.  You see the stress on their face, and then when they start to interact with the dogs, there’s just a calmness that occurs.”

“It’s really a wellness initiative as well for the professionals that work in this very traumatizing horrific environment of child abuse allegations and investigations.”

Based on this early success, Paton would love to see the program expand to the approximately 22 child advocacy centres across Canada.

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As for the program here in Edmonton, he smiles and offers a light-hearted take-away message.

“If anybody can donate lint rollers to us, we’d surely appreciate that.”

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