In their work with child victims of suspected abuse or neglect, the professionals at Child Abuse Network see and hear horrific things every day. This can result in “secondary trauma”: emotional duress from hearing about the firsthand traumatic experiences of another, according to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.
“The general public hears the big stories in the media (of alleged abuse and neglect),” says Dr. Michael Baxter, medical director of the University of Oklahoma’s Child Abuse Pediatric Clinic at the Children’s Advocacy Center. “We see firsthand the injuries these kids have, plus there’s the constant low level of hearing traumatic stories.”
Enter Albus, an 8-month-old, currently 70-pound white goldendoodle, who looks and acts like a giant teddy bear. Raised by Baxter, his wife and daughter as a “host family,” Albus was donated in 2019 by a local breeder with the hope he would become a therapy dog for the Center’s staff, which includes the medical team, law enforcement, the Oklahoma Department of Human Services and the Tulsa County District Attorney’s office. And he’s well on this way.
Science recognizes that petting an animal can have a therapeutic, stress-relieving affect — reducing cortisol, a major stress hormone, in as little as just 10 minutes, according to a 2019 study by Washington State University.
While therapy dogs are becoming more commonplace in direct work with children — such as those that accompany child abuse victims to court appearances through the Tulsa DA’s Special Dog Unit — other studies have shown a therapy or “facility” dog can be an asset to child welfare workers’ mental health.
Though 8-month-old Albus is several months from completing his training to be certified as a therapy dog, Baxter calls him “a natural.” Albus spends half-days at CAN, making a few rounds each day to visit the forensic interviewers, case workers, law enforcement and medical staff.
“He’s a huge stress reliever,” says Kelsey Hess, CAN forensic interviewer. “Anytime I have a tough interview, I curl up next to him, and it helps put me in a different mental space and process any disclosures I just heard.”
If Baxter knows a CAN staff member has just dealt with a particularly tough situation, he and Albus seek them out. “I always ask, ‘Is it OK if Albus visits?’” Baxter says. “I’ve never been turned down.”