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Special Support for Child Abuse Victims

Emily Synnott, Child Life Specialist and Webster, SKCAC Service Dog. Photo Credit: Dave Holland Photography.

Axel and Webster are the newest members of the team!

They are not trained therapists or conventional health-care providers but they are now members of the terrific team at Calgary’s Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre (SKCAC).

The social plague of child abuse is a cruel North American tragedy that leaves professionals with the enormous challenge (and dilemma) of not only what to do about it but, most importantly, how to heal the scars and enable a safe and happy life for the survivors.

The SKCAC, named after Sheldon Kennedy – the former NHL player who briefly played for the Calgary Flames in the 1990s and made the gutsy decision to go public about heinous abuse by his coach during his junior hockey career and who still tirelessly works hard to end the negative stigma surrounding abuse victims – is a vital, respected and dynamic not-for-profit organization located on the University of Calgary campus.

It brings together police, social workers, doctors, nurses, psychologists, prosecutors and – now – two dogs to help victims of child abuse.

The SKCAC developed the unusual but interesting idea of reaching out to Dogs with Wings, an Edmonton program which trains Labrador retrievers particularly for the skills of being comfortable with children.

According to Dr. Sarah MacDonald, a SKCAC forensic interviewer, “Research shows that children experience decreases in heart rate and blood pressure when petting a dog. The company of a service dog also facilitates social communication and makes it easier for children to make connections with people.

“These positive benefits help in the interview room specifically, allowing the children and youth we assess to feel comfortable, less anxious and safe while sharing what happened.”

At SKCAC, children go through forensic assessments when, as part of the therapy, they tell and relive their story. Particularly when they’re telling their story for the first time, having the companionship of trained and gentle service dogs like Axel and Webster provides the invaluable comfort they need.

The dogs also help the centre’s staff who work with the kids, one-on-one.

“I can tell the children are really relying on the dog for support while they tell me about awful things that have happened to them,” MacDonald says. “The bond formed between the children and the dogs can make it easier for the kids to form connections with other people down the line.”

Sheldon Kennedy, committed to helping and working to end the negative stigma surrounding abuse victims, emphasizes the importance, value and necessity of what the trained dogs provide when it comes to child abuse survival. “Kids who come in here have been traumatized. They come in with a lot of fear and a lot of anxiety. Most of the time they have been hurt by someone they trust.

“In 95 per cent of the cases that come through the centre, the child knows their abuser.”

Axel and Webster bring new meaning to the popular healing power of dogs.