Imagine being a police officer responding to a suicide call. Was the suicide event completed? Or was the individual still contemplating? Your mind is racing as you evaluate all possible outcomes. Now imagine being a police officer and your everyday duty is to investigate child pornography cases. Day in and day out you are part of a team that analyzes disturbing images and video in order to rescue children and bring to justice the criminals behind the content.
How do you cope mentally with either of those scenarios? It’s hard to imagine. It’s estimated that 30% of law enforcement personnel across Canada are experiencing mental health challenges as a result of their work. Thankfully, the Vancouver Police Department has prioritized employee mental wellness for a number of years and dozens of initiatives and programs are in place to support all its officers and members.
Last year, with the support of the Vancouver Police Foundation, they added two new amazing resources to support the mental health of their members – Accredited Facility Dogs (AFD) Sadie and Zen.
VPD Employee Wellness unit – AFD Zen
VPD Constable Michele McKnight and her colleagues in the VPD Employee Wellness unit provide comprehensive support to all VPD staff through a peer support program, critical incident and stress management team and athletic therapy team. It is a total body and mind wellness approach.
Thanks to funding from the Vancouver Police Foundation, the Employee Wellness unit was able to add a very important resource to the Employee Wellness unit in 2021 – a four-legged, three-year-old Black Lab/Golden Retriever cross, AFD Zen. With so much research showing the profoundly positive effect that dogs can have in lowering human distress, the addition of AFD Zen was quickly approved by the progressive mindset of the VPD’s Executive Team. After being raised and specially trained by the Pacific Assistance Dogs Society (PADS), AFD Zen joined the VPD’s Employee Wellness Unit as a working dog in July 2021.
“This was a groundbreaking opportunity to support mental wellness here at the VPD,” explains Michele. “Zen is really changing the work atmosphere for employees by bringing little windows of joy into an often otherwise difficult workday. He is the first Accredited Facility Dog to work internally with BC police employees and not with outside clients.”
While there are many Facility Dogs working in police agencies across BC, they are all working in the Victim Services Unit – supporting witnesses and victims of crime – just like our friend JFD Lucca does for the VPD. Zen’s role, however, focuses entirely on working with VPD employees only.
“We use Zen in our scheduled employee mental wellness meetings as well as other interactions on a more personal level when employees are going through stressful circumstances. Zen’s calm nature helps relax those around him.”
Zen and Michele, as well as their colleagues who lead Critical Incident and Stress Management diffusings, are also on call 24/7 to respond to critical or traumatic incidents among staff. These situations can range from serious injury or death of a VPD member or a member of the public, any serious incident involving a child, or anything else critical or disturbing in nature.
“We also know that second-hand trauma can impact civilian professionals. For example, civilian VPD staff are responsible for transcription and must often listen to difficult audio recordings of 911 calls, victim interviews and surveillance recordings,” explains Michele. “Bringing Zen into their unit opens a conversation that acknowledges the work they do is very valuable but can also be traumatic. Zen brings a comfortable approach to encouraging staff to reach out for mental health support. He helps break down barriers.”
It is important for human wellness to get a tactile connection to something that is soft and warm and reactive. It also allows Michele to have a comfortable space to connect with staff to check-in. “Zen’s calm energy helps others find their calm, so he really is a facilitator of wellness.”
Michele recognizes that it’s not always easy to reach out for help when you are struggling, but the number one thing she wants everyone to remember that someone else is going through something very similar and help is available.
“You are not alone in whatever you’re experiencing. You are demonstrating strength and courage when you reach out for support and look after yourself – which also means you are looking out for those you love as well.”
VPD Child Exploitation unit – AFD Sadie
While Zen’s purpose is to support VPD employees across the entire agency, AFD Sadie is assigned specifically to the Special Investigations Section, and even more precisely, she spends much of her time in the Child Exploitation unit where officers are dedicated to child pornography cases. Sadie joined the VPD as an Accredited Facility Dog in July 2021 alongside Zen thanks to similar funding from the Vancouver Police Foundation. Sadie was also raised and trained through PADS.
“Our team views visual evidence of child pornography cases which is very traumatic,” explains VPD Sergeant Christian Lowe and Sadie’s primary handler.
“There are several things that we do for mental wellness. We have strict rules for when and how long we can view the files and having Sadie present is a very important distraction. Her presence is a great sense of relief for everybody in the unit.”
Every morning, Sadie, a three-year-old yellow Labrador retriever, visits each staff member on the floor to say hello. At the end of each working day, Christian will tell her it’s time to say goodbye – and off she goes visiting each person to say a friendly farewell. What goes on during the day is a series of calming personal interactions she offers to those who need it most.
“She is a great support for not only my team but the whole floor,” adds Christian. “In fact, staff from all floors visit to say hello and sit down on the floor with her. Their visits help them focus on the moment so everything else can be forgotten.”
When viewing difficult images, it is natural for the human brain to want to revisit the image over and over to make sense of what was seen. In those moments, it’s critically important to break that cycle as soon as possible.
“Spending a few minutes with Sadie after viewing a hard image provides a happy distraction which prevents the image from imprinting in your brain,” adds Christian.
While it is difficult to put into numbers the impact Sadie has had so far, it is very evident that she is making a long-lasting positive difference for those who need it most.
In addition to supporting staff, AFD Sadie is also available to assist children with their victim impact statements. In those situations, Sadie will lay down or sit beside the young victim, provide her calm energy and simply be available as a peaceful and safe presence.
Funding for the next seven years for these new VPD additions was provided by two wonderfully generous donors from our community. Each has fully funded the ongoing, annual costs for each dog, for which we are deeply grateful.