First dog in Canada to be trained in-house to help paramedics cope, says handler

CBC News Posted: Dec 30, 2016 6:03 PM ET Last Updated: Dec 30, 2016 6:03 PM ET

Max the golden retriever — and certified therapy dog — sits next to an Ottawa Paramedic Service vehicle.

Max the golden retriever — and certified therapy dog — sits next to an Ottawa Paramedic Service vehicle. (Idil Mussa/CBC)

For paramedics, responding to fires, shootings, suicides and other difficult situations is all part of the job description.

But when they’re done taking care of people, who cares for their own mental well-being?

The Ottawa Paramedic Service has Max — a two-year-old golden retriever and certified therapy dog who’s around to calm the nerves of on-duty paramedics following particularly traumatic calls.

“He’s the first ever in Canada to be trained in a paramedic service, so [he’s] kind of a special breed,” said Tracy Levesque, a primary care paramedic and Max’s handler.

Perfect personality

It was about two years ago, said Levesque, that she had the idea to begin training Max as a therapy dog for the paramedic service.

At the time, the I’ve Got Your Back 911 social media campaign — intended to raise awareness about how first responders can end up suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder — was in the headlines.

 

Paramedic Tracy Levesque trained her golden retriever Max to be a therapy dog for the Ottawa Paramedic Service. (Idil Mussa/CBC)

That campaign “triggered” Levesque to consider the idea that her dog Max, even though he was only 17 weeks old at the time, had the perfect personality to become the service’s own therapy dog.

“You want a dog that’s relaxed, confident, curious and not fearful,” Levesque told CBC News on Friday.

“In this environment, there’s a lot of trucks — I have sirens that I use in my car — and Max has pretty much no fear of anything. Just a confident dog.”

That confidence is on full display on social media, where Max has both a Facebook page and his own Twitter account with hundreds of followers.

View image on Twitter

“Are you ok ? Do you need a paramedic human ?”

Initially a pilot project, Max’s training program was helped along with advice from both the Ottawa Police Service’s canine unit and the Ottawa Humane Society, said Levesque.

It’s also “cost-effective,” said Levesque, with the paramedic’s service’s own defibrillator company sponsoring the costs of Max’s food, grooming and veterinary costs.

‘A part of our family’

Two years after that training began, Max has become a key member of the service’s peer support team, Levesque said. Other paramedic services — both inside and outside Canada — have asked her for advice on training their own therapy animals in-house, she added.

“After critical calls, when paramedics are in a bad headspace, you can see — within five minutes of Max being in the room — that it just gets your mind off of the critical stress incident and more back to reality,” said Levesque.

“He’s really become a part of our family.”

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