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Toronto Police Have a New Weapon to Help Them in Investigations and it is Not What You Would Expect

Dandy is by all accounts an adorable, two year old, yellow, Labrador retriever. She is also a highly trained member of the Victim Services Trauma Dog Program (VSTDP) and a new tool to assist both the victims of crime in Toronto and those whose job it is to investigate such crimes. Dandy’s role is to provide comfort and distraction to those who are suffering through the agony and grief of being victims of a traumatic crime.

The dog, who can be used by both adults and minors- although priority is to be given to children and youth- can be booked to accompany Victim Services Toronto’s clientele to their appointments. Dandy helps the client to cope by providing unconditional touch and warmth, as well as by providing a non-stressing distraction.[1]

The victims of crimes are not the only ones in the city benefiting from Dandy’s presence. Dandy has been assisting the Toronto Police Services as well. As the Toronto Star’s Wendy Gillis reports, as the police service’s first trauma dog, Dandy has already begun to see clients out of her own office at the city’s 11 Division.[2]

Becoming qualified was an onerous undertaking for the animal, Dandy was made to complete 2 years of specialized training and pass 18 different skill and obedience tests before becoming certified by the Toronto Police Canine Unit in January.

Just how does Dandy provide a benefit for the police, while she is aiding victims? The answer is pretty straight forward. By making those who are the victims and witnesses of major crimes more comfortable and relaxed, following a tragedy, the hope is that these persons will be better suited to handle the additional trauma of working with the police and of testifying. Dandy’s effect on those she works with can be quite profound.

Dandy has a full time handler and her special training includes being conditioned not to become anxious herself, especially when those around her are reacting to trauma. Dandy is trained to practice “grounding” techniques. Grounding is, “a technique that helps keep someone in the present. They help reorient a person to the here-and-now and in reality. Grounding skills can be helpful in managing overwhelming feelings or intense anxiety. They help someone to regain their mental focus from an often intensely emotional state.”[3]  This allows the victim or witness to be interviewed or even to testify without succumbing to the anxiety created by reliving their traumatic experience.

Dandy is even trained sufficiently enough that she can be left in the care of police and a victim. This is a great tool for the authorities, as they can utilize Dandy and her therapeutic presence when taking confidential statements or when making video recordings. This is beneficial because, although Dandy is welcome, other persons who may help the victim or witness cope are not permitted to attend these confidential sessions. Dandy provides a valuable coping mechanism without jeopardizing the sanctity of a police investigation.

The presence of therapy dogs is shown to lower the heart rate and slow the breathing of those who are suffering from anxiety.[4] Children in particular have benefited from the presence of a therapy dog while being interviewed by the police.  It is hoped that the therapy dog program will continue to expand and widen the number of victims it can impact. There is even talk of expanding the capacity of the canines to allow them to be utilized in the court room. Bobbie McMurrich, an associate executive director at Victim Services Toronto, remarked that, “we also want to support the police in their processes, and I think in the end it does make a better witness.”[5]

[1] Victim Services Toronto, “The Trauma Dog Program”, online: http://victimservicestoronto.com/programs/the-trauma-dog-program/.

[2] Wendy Gillis, “After a traumatic crime, Toronto victims and witnesses can now get support from Dandy the dog”, The Toronto Star (17 March 2017), online: https://www.thestar.com/news/crime/2017/03/17/dandy-the-trauma-dog-is-toronto-police-services-newest-weapon.html.

[3] Prince Edward Island Rape and Sexual Assault Centre, “Grounding Techniques”, Educational Resources, online: http://peirsac.org/peirsacui/er/educational_resources10.pdf.

[4] Susan McDonald and Lara Rooney, “Let’s “Paws” to Consider the Possibility: Using Support Dogs with Victims of Crime” (2014) 7 Victims of Crime Research Digest 17.

[5] Supra note 2.