'Iggy's there just for them': Therapy dog helps child sex trafficking survivors testify

A 3-year-old Labrador and Bernese Mountain Dog mix is helping child survivors of sex trafficking find the calm to talk about their trauma.

'He doesn't judge. He's there to comfort them, he is there to make them feel safe,' said handler

Iggy is there to greet survivors of abuse as soon as they walk through the door. He'll stay with them through the process of speaking to police, as well as through the process of testifying in court if need be. (CBC)

Young girls who have survived significant trauma are getting help from a four-legged friend to begin talking about their experiences. 

Iggy, a three-year-old black Labrador Retriever and Bernese Mountain Dog mix, started work at Toronto's Boost Child & Youth Advocacy Centre about one year ago. For the last month, the formally trained facility dog has been on assignment, working with female victims of child sex trafficking. 

"Iggy's there just for them. He doesn't judge. He's there to comfort them, he is there to make them feel safe," said Karyn Kennedy, president and chief executive of the centre. 

"They don't have to worry about whether he is going to believe them or not. They can tell him how they feel, and they don't have to worry that they'll be blamed, or that somebody is going to tell them that they've done something wrong."

Iggy was trained for two years at National Service Dogs, based in Cambridge, Ont., before making his way to Toronto. Technically, he's what is known as a facility dog which means he works with an organization to help clients. But for many of the survivors at Boost he's just called a friend. 

"He's available to meet with a child the minute they get off the elevator into our centre. He welcomes them, and then he's available to sit with them through a forensic interview with police and a child protection worker," explained Kennedy in an interview with CBC's Metro Morning.

Iggy's calming presence helps even the "most vulnerable, the most frightened" survivor find a level of comfort that can be elusive otherwise. 

"He's big, he's strong, and he just helps these girls feel less isolated, feel that there is somebody there who has got their back," said Kennedy.

Recently, Iggy helped a three-year-old girl speak relatively openly about the abuse that she endured. 

Iggy is a 3-year-old cross between a black Labrador Retriever and a Bernese Mountain Dog. He trained for two years before coming to Toronto. (CBC)

"We've had parents say, 'There's no way that my child would have been able to do that without Iggy.'"

Most importantly, she says, Iggy goes to court with young girls to be by their sides while they testify against those that have harmed them. Before that could happen, the centre had to meet with judges and Crown prosecutors to explain what Iggy can offer to children who have experienced extensive trauma. 

Ontario first allowed facility dogs into court in 2016. Merel, a dog that was bred and trained at the same company as Iggy, works at the Child Witness Program in London, Ont. Her work with children there, helped similar organizations see the benefit of canine aids. 

The Toronto program has been so successful that Boost has already applied for a third dog. Jersey, the centre's other facility dog, works out of the Peterborough, Ont., location. 

"I don't think we really imagined the value that they were going to bring or the comfort that they were going to provide to kids," said Kennedy.

"I would recommend that every program that works with children have a dog like Iggy."