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Therapy/trauma dog here to ease struggling local children (with photo gallery)

Kyra Hoggan
By Kyra Hoggan
April 29th, 2016

One of the region’s newest, cutest and coolest new residents is promising to be a blessing for the entire West Kootenay, having already captured hearts in both Castlegar and Nelson.

Introducing Pheonix, a three-and-a-half-year-old Alaskan Malamute (much like a Husky, but generally a calmer, lower-energy breed) who’s actually here, not just to frolic with frisbees, but to work and serve the region as a therapy dog for children who have been victimized by crime – an innovative and cutting-edge way to ease the pain and long-term impacts of trauma.

Pheonix moved here from Ottawa in December with his mom and handler Eve Turner, and his dad and Kibble-provider RCMP Cpl. Brett Turner, who now serves with the Castlegar Mountie detachment.

Eve says Pheonix was an absolute natural at assuming a therapy role, which he started at the tender age of one year.

“He would visit seniors centres and spend time with the elderly,” she said, adding she and her furry ambassador opted to get formal training when Pheonix was about two-and-a-half. “We did an eight-week program with Ottawa Therapy Dogs – it was pretty basic, making sure he’s good with people and doesn’t startle at loud noises, that if he does get startled, he doesn’t run away or become aggressive, that sort of thing.”

They then went to train with READ (Reading Education Assistance Dogs).

“He’s now qualified to go into children’s schools and lie down for 15 minutes and have a child read to him,” she said, adding the benefits of this are remarkable – kids who experience extreme anxiety around reading aloud to other people feel no such qualm about reading to a dog, and are actually positively motivated to read because of the reward that comes with getting to spend time bonding with such a non-judgmental, gentle, caring – and, frankly – fun creature.

When Brett and Eve decided to move to Castlegar, they realized it would allow new work opportunities for Pheonix, too, despite how deeply the local detachment commander, Sgt. Laurel Mathew, dislikes animals in general and dogs in particular (that was an outrageous joke to make sure readers are paying attention – Mathew, in her off time, is the president of the local animal rescue agency, KAAP, and is an avowed animal lover).

“I knew he’d be great at it (trauma therapy dog work),” said Brett. “It’s been an easy process. We introduced him to everyone (at the Castlegar detachment) in January, and they loved him – he’s kind of a crowd favourite.”

Pheonix met his first local client at the beginning of this month, according to Eve.

“(His first client) was a child with a lot of anxiety and domestic issues,” said Eve, explaining they were working with local Victim Services. “We were just trying to make closer contact and make it easier (for the child) to be around police officers without it being associated with a bad experience.”

They’ve already visited Twin Rivers and Castlegar Primary schools, where they can help children struggling with anxiety, learning disorders, etc.

“I have a second leash, so they can walk the dog themselves, and he rubs up on them, talks to them – he loves kids,” she said. “We’ve found that the more he’s in there, the more relaxed (the kids) are. And they have a reason to want to come to school, if they know he’ll be there.”

He also attended Law Day in Nelson, not to mention tours of the Nelson RCMP detachment, making what can seem an imposing place far more welcoming to visitors both young and old.

Pheonix is not to be confused with police K-9 dogs, who can be shockingly fierce – Pheonix grew up around kids, Eve says, and has been thrown up on, tugged at, pawed and generally harassed, none of which troubled him at all.

“And the louder the child, the better – he loves it.”

These days, Pheonix is all about career advancement – Eve says the hope is that he will be allowed in witness waiting rooms at courthouses throughout the region, easing the hearts and minds of witnesses waiting to testify – particularly when those witnesses are children. They’d ultimately like to see him follow in the pawprints of a recent, ground-breaking case out at the west coast in which the therapy/trauma dog was actually allowed into the witness box, to support and calm a child as the child testified.

“And we’re very mobile – we can travel to Castlegar, Trail, Nelson, wherever we’re needed,” Eve said.

Christine Van Dyke is the local Victim Services manager, and she said the science behind this is irrefutable – clinical studies and quantifiable data have proven that therapy dogs can lower heartbeat and respiration, reduce anxiety, and ease trauma responses.

“Pheonix is going to be a huge resource for local children, youth, or maybe even adults who have experienced trauma. For our area, the benefit is huge,” she said. “Just petting him alone is, I’d say, a therapeutic benefit.”

And this isn’t the only ground-breaking animal therapy at work in our area. Van Dyke said Victim Services is working with local Registered Clinical Counsellor Holly Smee to provide equine therapy as well, (meaning with horses), which has also been clinically proven to offer dramatic therapeutic benefit.

So, from all of us at The Source and The Champion: to the big, fuzzy, affectionate ball of hardworking feel-good who has chosen to grace our communities, Welcome to the Koots, Pheonix!

 

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