Zen the dog provides stress relief for Vancouver cops

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Labrador Golden Retriever unique to BC law enforcement agencies

First of all, he’s not your average police dog.

He doesn’t chase bad guys.

He doesn’t sniff drugs or explosives.

What Zen, the 70-pound mix of Labrador and Golden Retriever, does is unique to BC police: it provides witnesses to Vancouver police officers embroiled in a traumatic event and those who continue to live with the tribute to be a tragedy, comfort.

Homicides, suicides and serious traffic accidents are commonplace in the city.

Seasoned police officers Andrea Sherry and Jordan Lennox can testify to the indelible impact of such troubling events on an officer’s well-being. Sherry worked in the sex crimes and child abuse department. Lennox spent time on an emergency response team and in gang crime.

Both now work on patrol and were in the media room of the police station on Cambie Street. Zen was at their feet when they spoke recently on a Thursday morning.

“If you only have him here, you automatically relax after a traumatic event,” said Sherry, noting that Zen’s presence lowered her blood pressure. “Everyone can relax for a second, take a deep breath and say hello to the dog. It gives you the courage to then talk about something that was terrible on patrol. “

Lennox offered similar glimpses into the effect Zen had on him and his colleagues, admitting that officers naturally are better at protecting their thoughts and not revealing their feelings over a hard day’s work.

“Having the dog there is that mood shifter, that channel, that little introduction to falling us and preparing us as cops and then getting into the basics of discussing the trauma itself,” Lennox said.

It is a natural requirement of the job that officers take part in a so-called debriefing on stress management in critical events or “defusing” after a traumatic event. Officials learn coping skills, have access to mental health professionals, a peer support group and a sports coordinator.

Const. Michele McKnight is a Critical Incident Stress Management Coordinator and leads Zen. The couple work from the VPD’s employee wellness unit. Mike Howell / Vancouver is great

That’s where Zen and his handler, Const. Michele McKnight, are most present.

McKnight is the debrief coordinator and works in the department’s employee wellness unit, where she is trained to help colleagues deal with potentially strong emotional reactions to an event.

The veteran officer became Zen’s dog handler after the Pacific Assistance Dogs Society (PADS) donated the three-year-old dog to the department in July. PADS trained zen to show calm and be present for officers to pet or play, or to rest at their feet.

He’s a regular at debriefing, but McKnight also does rounds with Zen from the various units in the department’s two main buildings on Cambie and Graveley Streets. The couple will occasionally show up in court to be with officials before they testify on a case.

Zen arrived at the department that summer, with McKnight first drafting a report on the need for such a dog. Funds were secured by the Vancouver Police Foundation for Zen Nutrition and Healthcare. A car was also made available.

Trio of Labs

McKnight doesn’t know of any other dog in a BC police department that provides the mental support that Zen does for officers.

But Zen is not the only Labrador at the VPD, his buddy Lucca has joined the department as an “intervention dog” since 2016; his job is to calmly influence desperate victims and witnesses to crimes and tragedies.

Zadie, another yellow Labrador, is affiliated with the internet child exploitation unit.

All three are having an impact. Lennox tells a story of Lucca’s presence after a fatal shooting in South Vancouver that saw young people at the scene. The calming effect Lucca had on bystanders was strong, he said.

“They started opening up and starting to be very specific about their trauma and worries, and they did so while interacting with the dog,” said Lennox, who owns a Rottweiler puppy and six Yorkies.

“I don’t know that this would have happened so quickly if the dog hadn’t been there. Then I was able to parachute in, get on my knees with the dog and the kids and they talked to me about what happened. “

McKnight told a story about the effect Zen had on an officer called to commit suicide on a young person. During a debriefing, the officer noted how comforting it was to have zen in the room.

“He said it allowed him to be more emotional,” she said when Zen was at her feet. “He had a tear in his eyes talking about one of the suicides he had dealt with and how traumatic it was and how sad it was because it was a teenager and how it really affected him.”

Although some officers are allergic to dogs and others are not dog-humans, McKnight said many officers actively seek zen during the work day.

“I’ve had much deeper one-on-one conversations about mental health with people who have problems and are in a mental health situation than I had before I got it,” she said. “Maybe it’s because I’ve been here for a while and people recognize me, but the officers are looking for him. He has significantly improved our employee wellness profile. “

McKnight added, “In all honesty, if I had a dime for every time someone said, ‘Oh my god, look how calm he is,’ I would be a rich woman.”

Double homicide

McKnight has been a cop for 23 years. She has worked in the patrol and domestic violence department.

Her last post before joining the wellness department two years ago was in the homicide division, where she was the filing coordinator of a double homicide on Broadway in which an innocent 15-year-old boy was shot dead in a car with his parents.

McKnight was burned out from the workload and emotional toll of the job. She took time out to travel to Jordan, where she volunteered for Habitat for Humanity and toured the country.

But she almost died there, she said after falling into a flash flood.

Upon her return, she spoke to a psychologist about her experiences on and off the job and discussed her next position in the department. She had a choice between the missing team and the wellness department. She was warned of the heavy toll the spa could take on her.

“Without a doubt, it’s the right position for me,” she said. “I’m so glad I did. I have done a lot of personal therapies to find out my trauma and get it out of my body. So now I have first-hand experience that I am happy to share with my colleagues. “

She admitted that she has the added privilege of taking zen home with her at the end of the day. McKnight is slated to retire next year but will stay in office for at least another five years as she is happy with Zen.

She expects that during this time the department will hire another dog to replace Zen, one who has been trained and trained as an assistance dog for people with a physical disability, or who is deaf or hard of hearing.

Zen represented his name very well during this reporter’s visit to the VPD’s Cambie Street district, where he interacted with officials and posed for photos. Most of the time, however, he was discharged on the carpet.

“The tension in the room is noticeably less when zen is present, and that tells me it did its job, which is why we got it,” said McKnight, who praised PADS ‘work in educating and exercising zen. “This is the end result of your work here.”