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Cops and Therapy Canines: Wagging Tails Reduce Stress

New research sheds light on occupational stress in police detachments.

Key points

  • Brief interactions with therapy dogs may reduce occupational stress.
  • Introducing a therapy dog intervention within the workday routine can be beneficial to officers.
  • Participants reported that the physical touch of the therapy dogs elicited a calming effect.

“I can’t change that I’m on a 10-hour shift, but I can at least make it as enjoyable as I can, and taking 10 minutes to take a break and rub a dog’s belly helps me."

One role of the academic researcher is to address identified gaps in knowledge or practice. This helps contribute to the body of knowledge within a field and can also hold applied significance, shaping behavior and standards of practice within and across varied settings. Advancing knowledge and innovating practice can arise from situating interventions within new contexts to support the experience of clients not previously studied. New research out of the University of British Columbia (UBC) just published in the journal Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin sought to do just that and showcases and chronicles the insights of Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) after having participated in a within-detachment stress reduction initiative.

Source: Freya L. L. Green Photography, used with permission
Therapy dogs helping reduce occupational stress.
Source: Freya L. L. Green Photography, used with permission

Spearheaded by up-and-coming graduate student researcher Freya Green, this innovative research was the first to explore the perceptions of RCMP members who participated in a canine-assisted stress-reduction program. As part of the community programing and outreach of the UBC Okanagan’s Building Academic Retention through K9s (B.A.R.K., dog therapy program, a program at the local RCMP detachment was established in 2018. This program saw eight therapy dogs and their handlers visit the detachment on a weekly basis to provide opportunities for members and staff to reduce their stress through interactions with therapy dogs. The pilot study assessing the effects of spending time with therapy dogs was the first study of its kind to document pre-to-post visit reports of stress in 120 RCMP members and civic staff (251 visits reported). Curiously, findings inform our understanding of the effectiveness of therapy dogs in reducing stress and provide an example of how a within-detachment precinct may be organized and structured. Reducing the obstacles or barriers to mental health support is key to ensuring access—busy professionals don’t want to be signing up for sessions or standing in line to access services. Added to this, members may be asked to respond to calls with little notice. Thus, a drop-in model was conceived similar to what is used on campus to facilitate interactions between student visitors and therapy dogs.

Law Enforcement Is Known to Be Stressful

Law enforcement personnel face a litany of stressors and the profession is known to be rife with both organizational and occupational stressors. These include but are not limited to organizational stressors (e.g., ever-changing shiftwork or workplace discrimination) and occupational stressors (e.g., negative interactions with the public or the constant, yet unpredictable, risk to life). Combined, these stressors render policing an especially stressful and challenging occupation. In turn, this elevated stress can impair members’ ability to perform their duties and compromise their ability to serve the public.

Embedding Stress-Reduction Opportunities Within the Routine Workday

Now in its fourth year, the Kelowna RCMP detachment sees weekly visits by therapy dogs to reduce member stress. Supported by the Year 1 findings, RCMP members and civic staff who spent as little as 11 minutes (i.e., the time comprising a typical coffee break), reported significant reductions in pre- to post-visit stress. Seeking to further understand their experience within these sessions, Green set out to explore why this intervention worked and the salient aspects of the dog therapy program that proved especially helpful.

Source: Freya L. L. Green Photography, used with permission
Interactions as brief as 11 minutes reduced workplace stress.
Source: Freya L. L. Green Photography, used with permission

Semi-structured interviews with eight RCMP members revealed that, in addition to reducing stress, the dog therapy program situated within the detachment served to provide a break from routine, improved their mood, decreased their stress, and helped RCMP members shift their perspective—to leave behind the troubles of the day and to recalibrate. When asked why the program worked, participants reported that the physical touch of the dogs elicited a calming effect and that the dogs were perceived to be affectionate, nonjudgmental, and unconditionally accepting. The members’ observation that touch is key is buoyed by recent findings in the journal of Anthrozoos that empirically isolated the role of touch in eliciting well-being outcomes in university students who spent time interacting with therapy dogs through touch.

“Being with the therapy dog is like a hug—you and the dog are both getting that good feeling from that contact!”

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