Meet the Herd: Very Important Paws (VIP) Coordinator

Sarah is the Very Important Paws (VIP) Program Coordinator here at the Zebra Child Protection Centre. Sarah’s primary responsibility is to run, develop, and grow the facility dog program at the Centre. She spends a lot of her time with our facility dogs Fletcher and Wren, supporting children, youth, and families in court, during court preparation, as well as during family meetings at the Centre. Sarah also helps other organizations who are interested in starting dog programs of their own.

Facility dogs can serve as calm, cuddly companions to victims of trauma, helping relieve stress and anxiety as well as building confidence during forensic interviews and court testimonies through contact-comfort. Their presence also serves as a pleasant distraction, helping to reduce negative feelings, thoughts, and concerns associated with the trauma they’ve experienced.

Since our dogs provide support in many different areas along the continuum of care, Sarah works closely with many different Zebra Centre partners and herd members. Sarah helps facilitate the training of Family Support Coordinators and Child Advocates in the handling of the dogs, ensuring that consistent and appropriate commands are being used and that each child gets the same amazing support from the dogs. Sarah must also communicate with the Crown Prosecutors in order to take dogs onto their cases.

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While Sarah believes that having the chance to work with both children and dogs makes her job the best in the world, there’s one Zebra Moment that sticks out to her above the rest:

“I went to court with a teenage girl, and Fletcher and I were on the stand with her. She had a very difficult time testifying so she asked for a break. We went back to the waiting room and she ran into the washroom, curled up into a fetal position, and bawled her eyes out. Fletcher, of his own accord, went into the washroom, sat down next to her, and started licking the tears off her face. They cuddled for about 10 minutes, and she gathered herself together and said ‘okay, I am ready to go back to court and finish this off.’”

In 2017, the dogs of the VIP Program supported children 62 times on the stand in the Edmonton Law Courts, as well as conducted 329 meet-and-greets with children at the Zebra Child Protection Centre to help them understand that the Centre is a safe place. With the support of Sarah, Fletcher, and Wren, children can be sure that they have a helping hand (and paw) at every step of their healing process.