British Columbia

Kelowna RCMP use therapy dogs to battle stress

Kelowna RCMP officers are battling workplace stress with the help of some trained four-legged friends and UBC Okanagan.

Pilot project is being tested at Kelowna detachment with help of UBC Okanagan

Volunteer handler Maureen Watt visits the Kelowna RCMP detachment with dog Dash. (Sarah Penton/ CBC)

You might notice a few new faces — and paws — at the Kelowna RCMP detachment.

As part of a new partnership with UBC Okanagan, police officers in Kelowna are combatting stress with the help of therapy dogs.

"This is the first study of its kind where we have therapy dogs helping support well-being in the workplace in the law enforcement setting," said John Tyler Binfet, an assistant professor with UBC Okanagan's faculty of education. 

Binfet runs UBC's B.A.R.K. program, which typically brings together university students with trained therapy dogs in an effort to reduce stress on campus.

A trial phase is now underway at the Kelowna detachment with four therapy dogs and their handlers visiting once a week for two-hour sessions.

Volunteer handlers with a couple of the trained therapy dogs in the B.A.R.K. program. (Sarah Penton/ CBC)

"You have folks who are exposed to unexpected trauma," said Binfet.

"What we're interested in is this spillover effect ... an officer goes out on a call, comes back and brings with him all this stress that is contagious to the work environment."

'You can't resist'

RCMP Supt. Brent Mundle says he reached out to program organizers after noticing the effectiveness of therapy dogs following a police shooting in St. Albert, Alta. in 2015.

"As part of that incident, we had an opportunity to bring in a service dog occasionally to the detachment," said Mundle.

"I was able ... to see how well it was impacting the employees when the dog was present. I always kept it in the back of my mind."

Volunteer handler Maureen Watt — whose husband is a retired staff sergeant with the RCMP — says dogs have a special way of connecting with the officers.

The dogs visit the detachment and interact with RCMP officers regularly as part of a pilot project studying workplace stress. (Kelowna RCMP)

"Typically someone will come and sit down, they're not saying too much," said Watt.

"The dog will instinctively know if there's an issue or problem, they'll move over closer and then you can't resist."

"A smiling Golden Retriever, everybody is going to touch them."

Two weeks remain in the trial phase, at which time the overall effectiveness of the program will be assessed.

With files from CBC's Radio West and Sarah Penton.