There's a changing of the guard at Victim Services Toronto, as one trauma dog hangs up her harness and another reports for duty.

Penny, a two-year-old Labrador retriever, is taking the reins as the trauma dog at the non-profit organization, as the pup who previously served in the role heads for retirement.

The organization helps victims of crime and other sudden tragedy navigate the legal system, and Penny is tasked with providing emotional support during that process.

“When we’re with these people, sitting with them or supporting them, there’s not always the words because the situations can be so horrific,” says Megan Ireland, the dog trainer for Victim Services Toronto.

“These dogs don’t need words to make someone feel a little bit more safe or a little bit more secure.”

One weekday morning in Toronto as Penny was gearing up to fully take on her new role, the sandy-coloured lab remained quiet and calm, cuddling in Ireland's lap whenever she could.

At the time, Penny had helped one person with a court appearance in her new role as a trauma dog.

Ireland says the process of training a trauma dog is very intense, and is similar to the training service animals receive.

“There’s a lot of obedience (training) that they go through,” she says.

“Where they branch off and where they differ is she’s supporting many different people. She has calming and grounding tools that she’s been taught, whereas for service dogs, they are specialized and specific to an individual.”

She adds the program goes hand-in-hand with Toronto Victim Service’s other work to support those impacted by crime or sudden tragedy.

“(Penny) can be utilized in many different areas. It could be in the immediate aftermath, and she can support in group debriefings,” Ireland says.

The previous trauma dog, nine-year-old golden lab Dandy, retired from the organization after a long career helping more than 500 clients since the program's launch in 2017

The program is available to people as young as two years old, which Ireland says leads to high demand for its services.

“There’s one dog for the whole city of Toronto, which can be a major challenge,” she says.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 22, 2024