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Four-Legged Friend Helping Durham Officers With Their Mental Health

group of happy dogs
June 2021
Reading time 8 minutes

As we paws for thought and reflect on the great work of our local police forces

We catch up with PCSO Claire Kerr to find out how a new wellbeing programme (and its four-legged recruit) will help support Durham Constabulary officers and staff with their mental health.

Ben has joined Durham Constabulary as the first OK9 wellbeing and trauma support dog. He is a three-year-old golden Labrador which Durham Constabulary has had from being a puppy. ‘He has always been handled and worked with me in his role as one half of Jet and Ben,’ Claire explains. Their current work involves community engagement and education in many different settings such as primary schools, nurseries and care homes. But the OK9 trauma and wellbeing dog role is an additional role for Ben which will run alongside the great work he already does within Durham Constabulary. 

Police officers and police staff jobs differ from day to day. ‘A lot of what they have to deal with is often just viewed as something they are expected to cope with: “just part of the job,” but we now know that this doesn’t work,’ Claire tells us. ‘Everybody deals with situations differently and often they won’t know how much something will affect them until they are thrown into that particular situation.’

Claire tells us that one of the biggest problems for police officers and staff is that this trauma can go unrecognised and unacknowledged. ‘Officers and staff may not take the time to seek treatment,’ she adds. ‘Many times they deny the trauma they are experiencing for fear of being viewed as weak or not being able to handle their job properly.’

That’s where Ben comes in. Durham Constabulary want to remove the stigma that seeking help is a sign of weakness and, with the help of the wellbeing team, support those officers and staff in seeking the right help and support when it is needed. ‘Ben is a crucial part of this process as he is a starting point to breaking down the barriers; he will be on hand whenever there are difficult situations or whenever officers and staff need him to help them relax and open up about how they are feeling,’ Claire says. ‘I am also a trained Mental Health First Aider who can signpost officers or staff to the right channels for help if required, and the wellbeing team will also always be on hand to help at any time.’

Science shows that stroking and cuddling a dog releases oxytocin in the body which can help to lower the heart rate, which helps to reduce blood pressure and to slow down the flow of blood to the brain. That allows for more open thought processes and a feeling of relaxation. Maybe that’s why dogs really are a man’s best friend. ‘Dogs are well-known for making great companions as they are great listeners (without having an opinion),’ Claire adds. ‘Talking to a dog can allow an individual to release any stress that they have, knowing it will be without judgement.

‘Walking a dog also has great benefits; fresh air and exercise also release oxytocins and allow the body to feel more relaxed. If requested, officers and staff can walk with Ben allowing them the time away from any trauma and to talk and open up. Having a dog in the office will allow them some down time from their workloads too.’

While the OK9 programme is still very new to Durham, it’s been very well received, with visits to stations where the officers and staff have had difficult or traumatic incidents to deal with. And he’s thriving in his role thanks to working with Claire. ‘Ben has been with me since he was a puppy. He is a very loyal and loving companion and brilliant to work with,’ she says. ‘He loves every aspect of his job with Durham Constabulary and has taken to his new role extremely well – especially when officers share their biscuits with him!’

Through this new role, it’s hoped that police officers and staff will learn more about the OK9 trauma and wellbeing dog, Ben, as time goes by, and that they will continue to request his presence whenever they feel he is needed. If successful, there may be more trauma and wellbeing dogs available to officers and staff in the future…

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