Through the doors of the BMO entrance at the Cataraqui Centre stands a group of masked humans, each holding leashes attached to puppies in various stages of their service dog training.
Ability Dogs Canada, the organization training these pups, have brought the dogs to the mall in search of a crowd. And an hour before closing in the middle of November, with the holiday season just around the corner, a crowd, the group has found.
As per a specialized curriculum, curated and designed by Samantha Cooper, the co-founder of Ability Dogs Canada and the facilitator of the group training, the mall is a perfect place for the puppies to come into contact with all sorts of real-life applications.
“Sit. Stay.” and “Good dog” echo across the mall and the training session is ready to begin.
It starts with the glass window training. The dogs walk around the glass panes that overlook the bottom floor to help them perceive that there is a barrier there. It takes a couple of laps for the dogs to get used to the see-through railing, but, eventually, the trainers are able to place the dogs next to the glass. In theory at least.
With the distractions of a slippery mall floor and strangers stopping by to take pictures, the stress of escalators and glass panes that don’t look much like a barrier, only the older, more seasoned puppies that are closer to a year old heed the “sit-stay” command of their trainers. The others just run after them – it takes the constant vigilance of the trainers to keep the loving puppy instinct at bay, but they are always rewarded with a belly rub.
The scene is so cute that the general public at the Cataraqui Centre has to be reminded constantly that when the dogs are wearing their service dog coats – which are slightly too big on some –they can’t be petted or distracted in any way. That is, except for one among the group, an almost one-year-old black, standard poodle named Indie – Indie the intervention dog can have all the pets she wants because, after all, it is her job.
As her role as the first intervention dog at the Limestone District School Board (LDSB), who is going to be stationed at Kingston Secondary School when it opens, she needs to be prepared for…
“Well everyone and everything,” said Emma-Jane Hamilton, the adolescent care worker for KCVI and Indie’s future handler and co-worker.
Hamilton has been training service dogs for a different organization for as many years as she has been an adolescent care worker and able to bring them into work, but ever since a policy shift in the Limestone District School board, she hasn’t been able to train any more dogs and she said she feels as though there is something missing.
“When I wasn’t able to train anymore, I noticed there was this gap,” she said. “I knew at the time how much a difference the dogs were making, but it was really noticeable without a dog in terms of how much easier it is to connect with students, for students to feel comfortable and even diffusing situations – It was noticeable how much easier that was having a dog there.”
And that’s where Indie comes in.
An intervention dog differs from a service dog in many different ways.
According to Samantha Cooper, the head trainer and co-founder of Ability Dogs Canada – where a service dog’s training is very catered to the specific situations that their human will need them in and what that person’s triggers might be – an intervention dog needs to be trained for all kinds of situations and needs to be able to recognize every human’s triggers and reactions.
“Indie will need to learn to be confident and stable in many different situations,” she said. “She needs to be rock solid.”
She might have a student who is crying, a student that is yelling, students that are fighting or a student that just really needs someone near them, and Cooper will train her to recognize all of these signs, however, with the COVID-19 restrictions imposed on the school board that don’t allow for any faculty or student on the premises, Cooper has had to get creative without being on the actual location.
To mimic lockers, Cooper slams her metal filing cabinets without warning, she takes Indie over ramps and different obstacle courses, and, to recreate a fight that isn’t actually happening in front of her, she hires drama students to reenact one in front of Indie.
“I don’t want an intervention dog to start barking and getting all hyper and excited so the handler can’t do anything,” she said. “I want the dog to learn to be calm and sit still and listen.”
With Indie turning a year at the end of the month, she still has a lot of time to train and take her test to get certified, however, according to Hamilton, with the general moral in the school being low, Indie could not be coming to the school community at a better time.
With nearly 57 per cent of Canadian teenagers between the ages 15 and 17 saying that their mental health is somewhat or much worse than it was before the physical distancing measures imposed in March (according to Stats Can), the days getting shorter, a feeling of isolation and hopelessness among the students, and the introduction to the octomester program (students take the same class for a month), COVID-19 has not been easy on the minds of the youth at KCVI and across the country.
“COVID adds a layer to the mental health of our students right now. Stress is high, there’s not real downtime, anxiety levels are rising and it’s getting hard for students, for sure,” Hamilton said. “[Students) are looking forward to having that extra support, as well.”
Cooper said that, when people are struggling with mental health issues, they set up a toolbox of things to help and that an intervention, though not a tool, is something else that can assist in calming down students in a stressful state of mind. Just by looking forward to having a dog join the team of support can give hope to the student body, she said.
“It’s unexplainable sometimes,” she said. “They don’t even have to have the dog placed with them, but knowing that the dog is coming and being trained for them has made a huge difference in in their whole thought process. It helps with positive thinking.”
According to Hamilton, one of the biggest barriers to seeking help for mental illness on the student voice survey that LDSB conducted was the stigma that surrounded asking for help.
“I’m hoping that Indie can break down some of those barriers,” said Hamilton.
Cooper said that she believes this is a step for the Limestone District School Board and KCVI in reducing the stigma that surrounds mental illness. It provides a teaching opportunity for the students in acknowledging their challenges and not to be afraid of them, but also to use their skills and teach them how to ask for help.
“The goal with Indie is to teach the students not to be embarrassed if they’re having a challenge. Every single person in the whole wide world needs to keep their mental health in check, everybody has those moments so this stigma is so confusing because there shouldn’t be any,” she said.
“So our goal with the intervention dogs is to use them as a way to teach students how to self-regulate and acknowledge what’s going on.”
Hamilton has set up a GoFundMe page to help fundraise for some of the personal costs that come with training and housing an intervention dog.