News / Calgary

Sheldon Kennedy Centre's newest workers will comfort kids

Axel and Webster have been trained to be patient with children, provide empathy

Dr. Sarah MacDonald and her new coworker, Axel, will help children at the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre.

Courtesy Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre

Dr. Sarah MacDonald and her new coworker, Axel, will help children at the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre.

The Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre’s two newest employees know all about paw-sitive reinforcement.

Axel and Webster, two young dogs trained by Dogs With Wings in Edmonton, will be providing comfort to children during difficult times at the centre.

Dr. Sarah MacDonald, a forensic interviewer with SKCAC, said she’s had the chance to work with Axel for about a month, and she’s already noticing the benefits of having a dog in the room.

“The children are a little bit more relaxed – they’re there to talk about some difficult topics and things that are hard to talk about, so Axel just provides bit or relief around that,” she said. “When children start talking about the difficult parts, the parts that are embarrassing, or traumatic, I notice they engage with Axel and I can tell they rely on him for support.”

MacDonald said they were inspired to bring service dogs to the centre after seeing the Calgary Police Service’s dog Hawk assisting witnesses in the courtroom.

“He was a trailblazer for us,” said MacDonald.

Doreen Slessor, executive director of Dogs With Wings, said her organization trains service dogs for a number of disabilities, and victims’ service dogs need as much work as any other guide dog.

“For Axel and Webster, from the day they were born, they started their training,” she said. “As puppies they had special handling and special training techniques.”

Slessor said the dogs are picked to be victims’ service dogs based on their aptitude and personalities.

“They’re the dogs able to do a downstay for long periods of time. They have to be sensitive to people’s emotions – coming into a courtroom, picking out who might be most traumatized or sensitive, and putting their head in their laps.”

It takes 9,000 volunteer hours from the time the dogs are born until they can go to their placements.

The cost would normally be about $40,000, but Dogs With Wings relies on donations and sponsors to provide every animal they train for $1.

Axel and Webster will get to go home with employees at the SKCAC each night, where they will get the chance to be regular pets in their off hours.

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