After seven years comforting child victims, Wren the support dog retires

For seven years, Wren, a 10-year-old yellow Labrador, has been working at Zebra Child Protection Centre, helping city police, RCMP officers and social workers respond to allegations of child abuse.

'She is that additional layer of support that we, as humans, can't provide'

Wren, an accredited support dog with the Zebra Child Protection Centre, is nearing retirement. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

A very good girl is about to retire. 

For seven years, Wren — a 10-year-old yellow Labrador — has been working at the Zebra Child Protection Centre, a facility that supports children who have suffered physical or sexual abuse as a case moves through the court system.

Wren is one of two highly-trained accredited support dogs at the centre.

Her tail wagging, she gently greets children as they enter the facility. She will also accompany victims to the courthouse and sit beside them as they undergo forensic interviews with police. 

"We support children who have experienced abuse, so they are coming in and telling their story," said Brooklyn Alcock, a director at the Zebra Centre. 

"She is that additional layer of support that we, as humans, can't provide. She can snuggle right up on the couch with these children and they're petting her and cuddling with her." 

We might not think it affects the dogs but it does.- Brooklyn Alcock

Her calm demeanour and sweet drooling muzzle have been an invaluable comfort to countless victims. 

"When they're sitting in interviews and in court, they're taking in all that emotion and they're sitting through all that with children. We might not think it affects the dogs but it does," Alcock said in a interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"It definitely has an impact on them and that is why their working life is until they're ten, which is why Wren is retiring." 

In 2015, Wren made history as she sat alongside a teenager taking the stand to testify against her alleged abuser. It was the first time a judge in Edmonton had granted an application for a support dog to sit inside a courtroom.

The case gave canines a new and respected role in the Edmonton courts, Alcock said. 

"We knew it would make it a difference having these dogs to support children during testimony so we worked with the provincial judges and the next thing we knew, Wren was on the stand," Alcock said.

"It's been a huge difference ever since. It's kind of a given now that the dogs are in court." 

In dog years she's worked 49 years, which is a really long time.- Brooklyn Alcock

In court, there are strict rules barring any contact between a child and a support worker who may sit beside them on the stand. The legal concern is that contact from the support person could sway the child's testimony.

"When we have support people on the stand, we can't talk to that child or touch them or comfort them in any way but the dogs can." 

Wren's last day on the job will be Feb 27. The centre is working to find her replacement through the training agency, Dogs with Wings.

Following her official retirement party, Wren will spend the rest of her days drooling and napping at the home of her handler. 

"In dog years she's worked 49 years, which is a really long time," Alcock said.

"Her retirement is very well deserved."