The project lead of a brand-new wellbeing and trauma support dogs initiative says it is vital that everything is done to better support officers with their mental health.
The project which is being launched by Oscar Kilo (OK), the national police wellbeing service, ties in with this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, which began on Monday (10 May) and runs until Sunday (16 May).
Project lead Garry Botterill has explained how the project will help build on the newly established wellbeing dog network, which has so far been supported by 35 forces nationwide.
“Supporting officers’ mental health can take many forms and using dogs is just one technique,” said Garry, “We researched the work that was already being done and started to form a network of enthusiastic people who were passionate about using dogs to support wellbeing.
“Being under one umbrella means that there are now uniform standards, policies and assessments, which means there’s also a lower risk of things going wrong.”
The wellbeing support dogs will be given OK9 jackets, certificates and badges and their handlers across the forces will be given OK9 pin badges, to make their positions official and known to their colleagues.
“Being in the company of dogs is a great way to reduce anxiety and stress,” added Garry, “They trigger similar emotions to the new parent-baby bond.
“We, as police, often find it difficult to talk about experiences that might have had an impact on us. Being able to talk about these events helps file the memories away and allows us to deal with what has happened.
“We find that the wellbeing dogs offer either non-judgemental listening, or that prompt to get people talking. I’ve seen grown men and women on their hands and knees petting a dog and all of a sudden, they feel it’s acceptable for them to show emotion.
“Sometimes we think of the dogs acting as a ‘furry bridge’ to help people communicate with their friends and colleagues. We often find that being around the dog encourages people to speak out and share their worries.”
The project allows retired or injured police dogs, who are unable to continue working as police dogs the opportunity to support officers and staff. Other dogs are specially sourced for the role or are selected because they have the necessary attributes to excel at helping people.
“All of the dogs must be suitable for this kind of project. The key is they’ve got to love interacting with people,” Garry said, “And while the dogs are great, they are only ever as good as their handler. It’s essential that these handlers are trained as Mental Health First Aiders or Peer Supporters so they can support officers who need it, when necessary.
Garry, a former wellbeing consultant at Sussex Police and Surrey Police, says his passion for supporting officers with their wellbeing, stems from seeing colleagues face challenges with their mental health.
His commitment to the cause saw him launch a phone app called ‘Back Up Buddy’ three years ago, which provided extra mental health support for officers.
“I’ve had friends and colleagues who have suffered with their mental health, some have taken their own lives, or have had PTSD,” explained Garry.
“And at my worst time ever, I’ve found that being around dogs helped me. I’ve seen and felt what an impact they can have.”
For more information on the wellbeing and trauma support project or if you would like to hear more about how you can introduce a wellbeing dog into your work, email Garry at Garry.Botterill@college.pnn.police.uk