A gentle, but warm weight on one's feet, a soft nudge of the paw or nose, and wonderfully warm and unassuming eyes. It's hard not to croon over the black labrador that Airdrie knows as Jake, the Airdrie and District Victim's Assistance Society's trauma dog. Jake just celebrated his sixth birthday on Monday (that's mid-to-late 40s in human years).
Discover Airdrie visited Jake and his handlers, Deborah Reid, the Executive Director of ADVAS, and Tara Theede, the Judicial Program Manager at Airdrie's RCMP detachment to see what a day in the life of a trauma service dog entails. During the interview, Jake is perfectly well-behaved, stretching out on the carpet and dozing peacefully, occasionally raising his head and looking toward Reid.
"When he's wearing his vest, he knows he's working. He's always looking to me for direction but he's always alert," Reid said. "What we use him for is primarily in the court and he will go up on the stand and then his role will be to look to you for comfort, and then reciprocate with providing comfort."
Reid explained that when individuals testify in court they are standing, so Jake will lay on their feet or sit near them.
"If you become agitated or upset, or distressed, he'll nudge you or he'll shift and it just sorts of reminds that person that, 'hey, I'm here, you're not by yourself.' He'll nudge them to encourage them to pet him and especially with children; you can just see that transition between the stress and them taking that breath and regrouping."
But Jake is also a comfort to those that come into the RCMP detachment as well.
"We use him for statements when people are coming in to disclose something that may be is too painful to talk about. I've seen kids speak to the dog, you know, in this room, this very room. We've had conversations where the person will be speaking to the dog, and everybody else is just recording and monitoring and observing."
Jake came to Airdrie nearly three years ago and the process of Jake coming to Airdrie was a long one.
"We waited five years to get him by seeing what the needs were. We wanted to evaluate our needs and what our expectations were of a dog before we got one, and then make sure that there was a dog available that could meet our needs. Because of his training, he's very obedient. The only time that he would ever disregard my command is if his safety was in jeopardy," she said. "For instance, if a fire alarm goes off, he tends to run away and if anybody knows anything about service dogs when they're not with their handler, the general rule is that, if you see them unaccompanied, chances are their person is in need."
Jake does not bark nor does he growl, but he is after all a dog, a very good dog at that. When he is done work, Jake is like any other playful lab, and one with an appetite for home-grown vegetables.
"He stole all the lettuce in the yard and he ate as far as he could reach [because he knows he is not allowed in the garden patch]. He eats the peas off the vine and last summer he ate the strawberries. He'll also sneak in the kitchen and pick up crumbs."
But there are challenges for both handler and dog. Reid explained that because she and other members of ADVAS encounter people at some of their most fragile and sometimes most terrifying moments in life, it can take a toll.
"I think maybe there's a calling to certain people to help other people. I think we all help each other in certain ways, sometimes people don't have a title as I do, but you're always helping others," Reid said. "I get a lot of satisfaction actually about what I do. I get lots of very discreet thank yous and acknowledgments that people appreciate the support they're getting. I'd say the rewards outweigh the challenges."
Because Jake takes on and tries to shield individuals from both stress and trauma, he too needs time to decompress. After hard days, Jake gets to 'debrief', which means he gets to take his vest off, lie down, be a bit silly and get a belly rub.
Reid estimates that with Jake's training and pedigree his worth is $35,000 and she expressed thanks to Kiwanis Airdrie for all that they do to help, including providing funds for Jake that cover not only grooming trips, but also his vet check-ups and food.
Perhaps one of the most touching things about Jake is that like any other dog, he has no expectations and no judgement. His eyes are full of serene adoration and encouragement.
"He's not trying to fix you and not trying to make you fix yourself, it's just that comfort," Reid said. "Sometimes the police officers use him as well if they're having an exceptionally rough shift. They can come and get him. It can be something as simple as taking him for a walk or sometimes they'll just come in and just want to sit with him. They don't want to talk, they don't want to do anything. They just want to be with him."
Reid expects that Jake will continue to serve the community until he is 10, and when he retires he can look forward to a leisurely life of snacks from the garden.
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