At first glance Caber is an ordinary dog. He is also extraordinarily laid-back, which is an asset. At a recent hour-long presentation in Ottawa, the 7-year-old yellow Labrador Retriever lay curled on a cushion on stage at the feet of his handler, Delta Police Victim Services Coordinator, Kim Gramlich, as she explained his critical role as a Canine Assisted Intervention dog with her department’s Victim Services.
“He is perfect for this work,” says Gramlich. “We wouldn’t want a victim to be confronted by an agitated dog. What we do want is a dog like Caber who is curious about emotion. He will approach someone who is crying or even wailing because of that curiosity.”
His mellow exterior belies an incredible capacity to intervene with traumatized victims in ways that humans cannot. “As much as we might want to, we cannot really touch a victim, even to offer them comfort,” said Gramlich. “But Caber can. People can pet him and hug him and he can offer this cathartic and healing touch.”
In one case, Caber was brought in to assist with a young boy whose father had just shot himself. For some time, the boy refused all contact with caregivers and was locked in his own tortured grief, lying motionless on his hospital bed.
When Caber came into the room he was invited to climb onto the bed and snuggled in beside the boy. “Caber was wet with his tears,” said Gramlich. “He stayed with him on that bed and did not move. He helped that boy get over the extreme emotion he was feeling.”
Caber is the first dog of his kind in Canada, and received two and a half years of training at Pacific Assistance Dogs Society, an accredited assistance dog training centre in Burnaby, B.C. Today there are 18 canine assisted intervention dogs working with victims across Canada, and there is a waiting list for more. He has been with the Delta Police since August 1, 2010, based in Victim Services.
When 15-year-old Laura Szendrei was brutally murdered in Delta in 2010, Caber was brought to her school the next day and into the classroom where her schoolmates were in the full throes of shock and grief.
“Caber sat in Laura’s desk,” said Gramlich, “and did her entire timetable that day, going from class to class. And the students would come to him, playing and interacting and crying. He broke down all barriers of cliques. The teachers didn’t even bother teaching.”
If there is magic in the transformations that occur through Caber’s unassuming interventions, there is also science. Trauma dramatically increases stress in humans, which can be measured in cortisol levels. Hugging a dog like Caber and weeping into his thick fur releases oxytocin, a natural antidote to cortisol.
“It is healing,” said Gramlich. “It helps victims get through the initial stages of trauma.”
Recently, Caber’s role (and that of other trauma dogs) has been expanded to include participation in court proceedings as a support for the victim.
“During his appearance in court Caber provided an invaluable service that allowed the witness to get through her highly traumatic and emotional testimony,” said Gramlich. “While testifying, the child bent down several times to pet Caber which appeared to refocus and calm her.”
This is a first in B.C.’s legal system and provides concrete validation of the critical role that accredited facility dogs can play in the lives of victims.