The therapeutic value of service dogs to those who have experienced trauma has been long established. Now, a new program in Alberta is partnering a canine therapist with people who help those facing traumatic situations every day on the job.

Delray is an accredited assistance dog assigned to relieve stress for paramedics. The three-year-old black Labrador Retriever will be making regular rounds at local EMS stations to support first responders.

“When people engage with dogs, it lowers their blood pressure and their heart rate, and also gives them an increase in oxytocin,” Erica Olson, Delray’s handler, told CTV News. “That’s really important because oxytocin helps offset some of the negative effects of stress.”

Olson knows the stress of being a first responder well. She’s a paramedic herself and said a lot of the qualities that make Delray a good therapy dog translate to the medical profession.

“He can be calm in a lot of environments. He isn’t excited by a lot of people being stressed around him, and when someone wants to engage, that really lights him up,” Olson said.

Results from Canada’s first national survey examining injuries among first responders found 44.5 per cent of nearly 6,000 participants “screened positive for clinically significant symptom clusters consistent with one or more mental disorders.” The rate among the general population is 10 per cent, according to Statistics Canada.

Delray’s friendly disposition tends to rub off, literally, when people pet him between emergency calls.

“What Delray does is put a smile on your face and helps you forget that stress you’ve been holding onto after that call,” explained paramedic Braeden Turnbull.

If the program is successful, more dogs could join Delray on the job. Olson said she expects he will live up to the reputation as “man’s best friend.”

“People can be more open, and they can actually feel their feelings in a different way than they would if the dog wasn’t there,” she said. “I think it’s a result of all the unconditional love they offer us.”

With a report from CTV’s Alberta Bureau Chief Janet Dirks