If Delray ran – ears waving like wings and cheeks – you’d never guess he’s the first of his kind in North America: a professional emergency service peer support dog. The big black laboratory is dedicated, well trained and heavily invested. It has an important role: to help the helpers we rely on when disasters occur.
Imagine you are a first responder. They are routinely present for the worst moments in a person’s life and for way too many deaths. While this is part of the honor and reward of this high impact profession, it also carries the risk of psychological harm. The suicide rate among first responders (paramedics, firefighters and police) is tragically high and the services available for the prevention and treatment of occupational stress injuries are still catching up.
Canadians Erica Olson and Delray, the Psychological Awareness and Wellness Support (PAWS) team at Alberta Health Services (AHS), Ambulance Services (EMS). They work together to provide mental health education and support to EMS workers in Alberta who deal with traumatic events as part of their daily work environment.
While Delray greets and connects with employees, Olson provides information about how the job affects first responders and why their mental health is a priority, and offers some simple methods of self-care. She found that understanding how psychological trauma affects the human nervous system can help first responders understand why they need to be proactive with their stress levels.
Delray’s sociability and natural resilience got him this job, and careful training and acclimatization prepared him to be his relaxed, confident, and joyful self in hundreds of settings. He knows how to manage and relieve his own stress by shaking off, sniffing, zooming, resting, and playing. You could say he’s a professional.
Delray was also taught how to interact with EMS workers: “Go and say hello” means wagging his tail and greeting people in his immediate vicinity. “Go socialize”, he can edit the room freely. “Jump up” signals that he can join a person on the furniture. Of course, he also responds to practical commands such as “bed”; “Clean” (when Olson sees drooling); and “Release” which means he’s free to explore and sniff. Sniffing, says Olson with a smile, is his gateway drug, one of the ways he regulates the stress he might be feeling and gets back to his amiable and calm demeanor.
His training and the consistent manner in which Olson treats him have shaped him into a dog that blends seamlessly into life with people. Judging by his joyful nature, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
A few years ago I met Erica at an equestrian clinic that my husband Mark Rashid and I were teaching and was impressed with how easily she smiled and how funny she was. She and I recently talked about their four-year odyssey.
Bark: Tell us more about Delray’s background.
Erica Olson: Delray was bred, raised, and trained by the Pacific Assistance Dogs Society (PADS), a school recognized by Assistance Dogs International. He was born in Florida at the Southeastern Guide Dogs facility and his litter was named after the beaches of Florida. His mother was a PADS dog, and shortly afterwards she and her litter returned to Canada. Delray began basic training at eight weeks in Calgary and one and a half weeks later in Vancouver.
Delray was seen as a very good candidate for an accredited facility or mobility aid role. He found mobility aids – opening doors, turning on lights, calling etc – only fun when it came to a grocery reward, but was a natural work in the facility where he worked with a dedicated staff member to provide psychological support and assistance to others to provide emotional comfort. He didn’t need encouragement to deal with people on a daily basis.
People sometimes think that Delray is trained to seek out stress or those in need. He is not. This type of training is used when there is a relationship between people with specific needs (e.g. PTSD or anxiety disorders) and their own service dogs.
As a facility dog, Delray’s job is to get in touch with people. He was chosen for his social and resilient nature and then was carefully prepared to deal with hundreds of environmental variables so that they would not interfere with his work. PADS graduates are supported throughout their careers and only work as long as they are healthy and enjoy their work.
Bark: How did you get into this job?
Olson: Connecting with animals has always been important to me. I knew early on that I wanted to work with horses, but it was difficult if not impossible to make money that way. Then in 2010 I found a career in paramedic that was more rewarding than any career I’d tried before.
I enjoyed interacting with patients and found that it was worth sharing the human-animal connection with others, but I didn’t know what that might be like. To find out, I started studying horse-assisted wellness and coaching. That led me to the philosophy of horse training that I learned with you and Mark.
That training provided a foundation for listening to horses, dogs, and me in a way that enabled the internal changes I needed to make to practice animal-assisted welfare. The trip has been so rewarding and I am learning and growing through this work.
When AHS EMS formed a committee to deal with the mental health of EMS providers, I applied and was lucky enough to get a seat. Here the PAWS program was originally launched in March 2015 and developed through two years of literature research and research. It was launched in October 2017.
Bark: What was the most memorable work experience you’ve had with Delray?
Olson: Immediately after the program started, we went to a station in northern Alberta to visit the rescue workers. The aim of these visits is to alert crews to the program and to promote the value of maintaining their mental health in shifts.
One of the crews had just returned from a difficult call and a paramedic said it was actually part of a series of difficult calls as the tour progressed. The paramedic briefly mentioned that they had been stressed from the last few calls before the conversation shifted to lighter content.
Delray was on the leash at the time and when the medic came over to him he gave his wobbly signature hello, then sat down and propped himself on the medic’s legs while we visited about the weather.
I had never seen this behavior before, and I haven’t seen it that way since. I heard back after our visit that the paramedic found Delray’s body pressure soothing and his attention in the middle of a really tough day was meaningful and supportive.
This may seem like a small thing, but Delray intuitively opted for a natural way to get in touch with someone who was severely stressed out. These moments can transform the tide within us, from stepping the water and coping, to restoring, adjusting, and realizing what else it might take to recover in the midst of acute or chronic stress.
Bark: How has Delray changed your everyday life?
Olson: Living with Delray seals the business of not just knowing what’s healthy, but living it every day. The basic daily routine of grooming, exercise and training is worth it for both of us. I love honing my ability to offer clear communication and working with PADS coaches on a regular basis to support our growth. I’m honored to take care of him – although it took some getting used to finding his hair in my breakfast.
Follow Delray on Facebook @delraypaws and Instagram @ delray.paws
For more information on Olson and Delray, see ahs.ca/paws and on PADS at pads.ca