Wellness dog patrols downtown Edmonton

In the pedways – below the streets of Edmonton – you’ll often find a three-year-old Labrador Retriever roaming around.

“His name is Yoghurt and getting pets is his job,” Jeffrey Friend tells someone who stops to see his dog.

The pair are a volunteer wellness dog team with the Chimo Animal Assisted Wellness and Learning Society (CAAWLS).

“We have about 100 active volunteers with their dogs and we do visits to K-12 schools, seniors homes, universities, businesses, basically anywhere that likes to ask us to come out,” said Friend.

About a year ago they were asked by the City of Edmonton to be part of a pilot project called ‘PAWSabilities’.

“Really just a novel approach to bringing safety and connections to spaces where people haven’t, over the last few years, really felt overly safe,” said Connie Marciniuk, a community safety liaison with the City of Edmonton.

Marciniuk was assigned to the Downtown Empowerment Team and thought introducing a wellness dog would be a great way to do that.

“I knew about wellness dogs and their proven track record of bringing that stress relief and that wellness and that connection to people so I thought maybe we could capitalize on the benefits that they have and see if we could shift some of the dynamic in our downtown spaces,” she said.

It started with walks primarily around the Churchill Square area. In January, they moved underground to the pedways and transit areas.

Wellness dog ‘Yoghurt’ walks through the pedways around Churchill LRT Station on March 28. (Cam Wiebe/CTV News Edmonton)

“We didn’t know exactly what we were hoping for or looking for, we were just looking for an ability to chat and connect with people and bring a little bit of vibrancy and joy to this space,” said Marciniuk.

“And it’s all about just improving people’s mental health through that human-animal bond,” said Friend.

They’ve had about 400 interactions with people since the pilot program started. Friend said the most meaningful have been interactions with the city’s vulnerable.

Wellness dog ‘Yoghurt’ walks through the pedways around Churchill LRT Station on March 28. (Cam Wiebe/CTV News Edmonton)

“We were doing a homeless shelter for a while and it was just phenomenal, you could see these people that live lives where they might not get invited to interact with a dog and how important that is to me and being able to share that with them, Friend said.

He added the experience has made him feel much more comfortable walking around the area.

“It’s really kind of created a sense of humanity rather than avoid or look away. It’s really been positive in my life and I assume in theirs as well,” he said.

Wellness dog ‘Yoghurt’ walks through the pedways around Churchill LRT Station on March 28. (Cam Wiebe/CTV News Edmonton)

“Yoghurt very willingly accepts those interactions which have really been a beautiful moment to see,” said Marciniuk.

She said the pilot project has gone so well, it will not only continue, but expand.

“We’re also exploring other downtown pedway spaces or potentially looking at Southgate and Century Park in those transit spaces,” said Marciniuk.

Yoghurt is on the job for the city twice a week, combining his love of walks and lots of attention.

“He loves every second of it,” said Friend.

With files from CTV News Edmonton’s Nahreman Issa

By hadem