Hospital lab sniffs out stress, prescribes 'unconditional love'
Dorado the dog hired at IWK Health Centre to help children suffering from neglect or abuse
He loves yoga, squeaky toys and long romps in the woods, but the newest employee at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax has a special place in his heart for kids.
Dorado, a three-year-old Labrador retriever, provides comfort and support to children suspected of suffering from neglect or physical, sexual or emotional abuse.
The American lab wears a blue vest with the words "assistance dog" in bright yellow letters, and even has his own hospital identification badge.
Kathy Bourgeois, Dorado's primary handler and a social worker at the children's hospital's SeaStar Child and Youth Advocacy Centre, said the dog has a calming effect on children, youth and families and reduces anxiety and trauma.
"Kids are at higher risk of being traumatized because they have less choice about what is going on in their environment," she said Friday. "Dorado helps them not feel as overwhelmed."
Dorado takes the bus to work
Unresolved trauma can lead to mental and physical health issues, addictions and poor socio-economic outcomes, Bourgeois said. Eliminating that trauma can put kids "on a trajectory for better life outcomes," she said.
Dorado, which means golden in Spanish, is the first accredited facility dog in Atlantic Canada and one of 29 dogs across the country supporting trauma victims.
The yellow lab is a hybrid between a therapy dog, providing affection and comfort, and a service dog with access to institutions and public facilities such as transit, hospitals and courtrooms, Bourgeois said.
Dorado rides the bus to work in the morning and holds down regular hours. But at the end of the day, when his service vest comes off, Bourgeois said "he's just a dog."
"In our yard or at an off-leash park, you can see he's very fast and he loves to jump and play and run through the forest," she said, adding that he stretches with her when she does yoga.
Dogs trained to handle stress, noise
But Dorado must follow a strict diet that only allows him to eat kibble, his secondary handler, Angela Arra-Robar, said.
"He doesn't get cheese, dog treats or milk bones," said the clinical nurse specialist. "He's got a very specific diet that we have to follow and we have to keep his weight in a certain range."
While children quickly understand his dietary restrictions, Arra-Robar said adults sometimes need reminders that he's not allowed treats.
And though he might not get bones, she said he gets lots of toys, outdoor play and love.
Dorado's training is based on positive reinforcement, with kibble and praise used as rewards, Arra-Robar said.
"These dogs start to be trained when they are four days old to handle increased amounts of stress, noise, light stimulation and textures," she said.
Arra-Robar added that dogs like Dorado are specially bred and trained to work with trauma victims.
"They are trained to smell the cortisol release when you get stressed and are able to emit unconditional love and support," she said. "Studies have shown that connection with a dog will actually increase your oxytocin and your serotonin happy hormones and make you feel better."
Brings 'calm vibe' for patients
Dr. Amy Ornstein, medical director of the IWK's Suspected Trauma and Abuse Response Team and division head for general pediatrics, said Dorado has a tremendously positive impact on children and their families.
"He just brings a really nice calm vibe to the space, which is important because often the patients and families that we see are having a tough time," she said.
Ornstein said he also brightens the day of busy hospital workers.
"Oftentimes you'll see staff down on the floor with Dorado, giving him a pat, giving him a belly rub," she said. "Everybody wants to stop and say hello."