Dandy the trauma dog makes victims of tragedy feel better, 1 cuddle at a time

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Like most support workers, she is highly-trained and ready to help people through tough times. But Dandy does it in a way that only a dog can, with a wagging tail and unwavering loyalty.

That makes all the difference for the people she meets, says her handler Meagan Phelps.

“That scary experience of having to relive or talk about circumstances that brought them into this situation, it’s now like, ‘It’s going be okay, because I have a dog by my side and they’re not going judge me,'” she told CBC Toronto.

The two-year-old golden Labrador retriever is Victim Services Toronto’s first and only trauma dog. Her job? Providing comfort for victims of crime and sudden tragedy, one cuddle at a time.

“Right away, it was very clear that she loves people,” said Bobbie McMurrich, Dandy’s owner and the associate executive director at Victim Services.

McMurrich wanted a Lab of her own, but thought maybe her clients would benefit from a dog’s presence. She started training Dandy for this role at just nine weeks old, bringing her into the downtown office and starting with basic obedience training. But it quickly advanced from there to prepare her for a lifetime of visits.

Handler and owner

Dandy listens intently to her owner, Bobbie McMurrich (left) and handler, Meagan Phelps (right). (CBC)

“Soon she was in full-time training Monday to Friday, and I’d have her on weekends,” McMurrich said.

Victim Services provides support for about 20,000 people each year, including some 7,000 children and youth, McMurrich says. To ensure Dandy was properly prepared, they exposed her to various busy and loud environments, asking her to stay put through it all until told otherwise.

“She was taken on subway rides, where there were lots of crowds … pots and pans were being dropped on the floor all around her,” McMurrich said.

Toronto police’s canine unit certified Dandy as a trauma dog after she passed 18 obedience requirements in January.

Since then, Dandy’s handler has brought her to and from appointments with clients.

“It makes people genuinely happy,” Phelps said.

In order to pass certification, Dandy mastered these three so-called “grounding techniques” that help reduce victims’ stress and anxiety:

Hug

Hug

Dandy performs the hug grounding technique with owner Bobbie McMurrich. (Emma Kimmerly/CBC)

Dandy jumps up and wraps her front legs around clients waists, and snuggles in close to their chests.

Go visit

Go Visit

Dandy performs the ‘go visit’ technique. (CBC )

This one is less paws-on. Dandy walks up and places her head on the person’s lap and stays there for petting.

Over

Over

Dandy performs the ‘over’ technique. (CBC)

Dandy gets either completely or partially on top of someone for grounding.

City needs more therapy dogs

Using dogs to treat trauma victims has increased in popularity across the country, but McMurrich says this trend is still relatively new. She says there are several dogs in Ontario alone, but Toronto only has Dandy.

Right now, Dandy can only handle two visits a day as the emotional impact on the dog can be tiring, McMurrich says.

“So as an agency that serves the entire city of Toronto, [one dog] isn’t going to be enough.”

In the future, McMurrich says the service will look at getting another dog, but added that it’s a long process.

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Dandy the trauma dog makes victims of tragedy feel better, 1 cuddle at a time

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