Odessa the labradoodle is far from your average lovable puppy.
She is cute and cuddly, but she has a very important job to do.
“She hasn’t been to the hospital yet, but she’s showing some really promising signs walking up to my work colleagues and that’s a really good sign for a community therapy dog because we want them to not be attached to a single person,” owner Liz Palmer said.
“We want them to be loving on everyone.”
Odessa is the second puppy Ms Palmer has adopted for the charity Hope For Our Children to improve outcomes for children going through the trauma of giving evidence in court or dealing with illness.
She is making up for the sudden death of her first pup, Kit, from a bowel obstruction six months ago, devastating the children in the youth mental health ward at Toowoomba Hospital.
“We treat our dogs like part of the family … even now I’m getting a bit teary,” Ms Palmer said.
“It’s a huge loss to the work he was doing, he was changing lives there.”
But thanks to a generous donation by a breeder, the charity was gifted Odessa and will use local government grants to train her.
“It’s a big help because these dogs cost thousands of dollars,” Ms Palmer said.
“We are handlers, but we need the expert trainers to train us to help the dogs as well, but there’s also food and vet bills too.”
Hope For Our Children’s older dog, Hope, is taking part in a statewide pilot program trialling court therapy dogs, while its third pooch, Haven, is still in training.
A worthy investment
It is the dogs’ natures that make them the best therapy dogs.
Always there for a pat or a cuddle, they bring distraction and a sense of calm to children going through some of the worst experiences in their young lives.
Even certain smells, tastes, sights, or sounds can make children feel overwhelmed.
It costs almost $20,000 per dog per year, but fellow volunteer Zack Wright said the investment was worth it.
“It actually helps children to ground themselves and sequence their thoughts as well,” he said.
“For kids going into the court system, it’s really handy for comfort, but also it helps them actually ground themselves and actually take note of what’s around them.
“In doing that, it helps them to sequence events a lot better and actually results in better testimony and better evidence given for the child.”
Queensland’s Attorney-General Shannon Fentiman said the trial looked promising.
“Therapy support dogs do invaluable work in our courts providing much-needed emotional support to children giving evidence,” she said in a statement.
“Hope For Our Children is doing fantastic work in our Toowoomba court with their support dog and Protect All Children Together (PACT) is also running a pilot program with dogs Kobe and Harper in Brisbane.
“If this trial is successful, we will be looking at expanding this initiative in more locations.”
Samantha Brown is a lecturer in psychology at the University of Southern Queensland whose own therapy dog, Audrey, comes to work every day to support trainee psychologists under supervision.
“Use of dogs in therapy used to be a bit more of a fringe therapy, but now it’s gaining a lot more popularity among mental health practitioners and the wider community because it offers an innovative way to connect with our clients,” Dr Brown said.
“We’re seeing improvements in wellbeing, like reduced anxiety and stress, reduced anger in the moment, and the improvements in the physical wellbeing where we’re seeing dogs leading to improvements in heart rate, blood pressure, even reports of feelings of pain .
“When we’re dealing with patients in a hospital setting, where they might be experiencing really stressful environments or treatment, there’s research showing, particularly with kids, that they’re having reduced stress in that environment with the dog, as well as reporting that they’re not feeling or experiencing as much pain, which are really exciting results.”
Dr Brown said she was not surprised by Hope for Our Children’s success in the court system.
“Typically for those people, they’ve experienced a lot of trauma or stress, so their fight or flight gets activated,” she said.
“During those stressful environments, we’re able to see a response where they’re calmer, feel safer, and then able to disclose or share information.
“Then hopefully for there to be more reliable testimony, as well as less trauma for them when they’re providing evidence.”
The state member for Toowoomba South, David Janetzki, said amid growing community concerns about youth crime there was potential for therapy dogs to be used in early intervention programs.
“The work that Hope, the other therapy dog, is doing around the Toowoomba courthouse is vital in catering for those kids,” he said.
“Youth justice is a very complex, complex area and whatever we can do to help solve it, including the use of Hope For Our Children in that setting, has to be encouraged.”
‘Bringing out the best in us’
Dr. Brown agreed that the use of canines could potentially lead to youth crime prevention and rehabilitation.
“For many of those young people, they’ve had experiences where it’s hard to trust adults, hard to trust people [but] when you’ve got a dog there, that gives you that unconditional love,” she said.
“It can have a very powerful and possibly lifelong effect for them.
“We know animals really bring out the best in us.”