Windsor police officers and civilian staff burdened by the stress of dangerous and traumatic work will soon have a team of cuddly four-legged friends to give them comfort.
Bohdal’s job entails researching, establishing, and managing wellness programs for officers and civilian staff. The idea of therapy dogs stemmed from a March visit to Windsor police headquarters by a therapy dog from York Regional Police that elicited positive reactions from local officers. The London Police Service started bringing in St. John Ambulance therapy dogs last fall, “so it seemed like a good fit,” Bohdal said.
“Your feel-good hormone oxytocin gets released when you’re interacting with the dogs. It’s good for our members’ well-being.”
Bohdal anticipates the program will also help reduce the stigma around seeking mental health help by sparking conversations about dealing with stress.
The therapy dog program suffered during the pandemic, said Lesley Smith, unit chief with the organization’s Windsor-Essex therapy dog program. Over those three years, the program lost “a number” of teams. It’s now working to rebuild and recruit prospective members.
“Our teams are thrilled to be back out in the community doing what we truly love: sharing our beautiful dogs with those that need their unconditional love, acceptance, support, and loyalty,” she said.
St. John Ambulance therapy dogs also visit hospitals, hospice, long-term care homes, post-secondary schools, high schools, summer camps, and elsewhere with “people looking for that support, affection, and acceptance the dogs bring,” Smith said.
Smith said each dog has passed a “rigorous” training process that includes a 15-part simulation of things they would encounter during a therapy visit. Among them are startling and loud noises, walking through a crowd, gently accepting treats, and having multiple people pet them at the same time.
While the Windsor Police Service has a number of K9 units, Bohdal said those dogs are trained to listen only to their handlers and have jobs that are “much different” than therapy dogs. K9 units, he said, are not comfortable being pet by multiple people.
Therapy dogs are one of several health and wellness initiatives Bohdal said the force is offering its members. Two months ago, it started holding yoga classes every Wednesday at lunch. In 2022, even with Covid protocols still in place for almost seven months, the St. John Ambulance Windsor-Essex therapy dog teams logged more than 350 visits in more than 25 facilities, totalling 2,500 volunteer hours.
“This is just another option,” Bohdal said. “Some people are afraid of dogs, so this won’t work. Some people are allergic. It’s not about having one specific program that works for everybody because that doesn’t exist. We’re trying to bring in another option for people.”