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Lucca the Labrador brings calm to crime victims

Three-year-old dog second in B.C. to work with a police department
Lucca, a three-year-old male Labrador, has joined the Vancouver Police Department’s victim services unit. His handler, Sue Baker, introduced him to media Tuesday at the Cambie Street precinct. Photo Dan Toulgoet

The Vancouver Police Department’s new recruit was introduced to media Tuesday but he didn’t say a word.

In fact, he spent a lot of time sacked out on the floor.

Lucca, a three-year-old male Labrador, is the department’s first “intervention dog” and works out of the victim services unit. His job is to be a calm influence on distraught victims and witnesses of crime and tragedy.

“The presence of a dog like Lucca can help calm the nervous system, reduce anxiety, decrease heart rate and lower blood pressure,” said handler Sue Baker, who is a crisis intervention case worker at the department. “As well, Lucca’s involvement can help diffuse strong emotion, provide a healthy distraction in the midst of crisis and be a source of cathartic touch and physical comfort.”

Since his first day on the job Feb. 8, the 68-pound dog has provided his services in cases related to homicides, assaults and armed robberies. If his calmness in front of fawning photographers and television camera operators gathered at the Cambie Street precinct was any indication of his talent, he is good at his job.

Baker said Lucca, who is on loan from the Pacific Assistance Dogs Society (PADS), has been well received by all victims he’s had contact with on the job. None has refused his services, she added.

“Some clients will pat him and hug him and kiss him and interact with him in a very physical way,” said Baker, who has a spot for Lucca under her desk when they’re in the office. “Others have made comments like, ‘He’s so gentle, he’s so calming.’”

Lucca, who lives full-time with Baker, is the second dog in B.C. to do such work. In 2010, Caber, another Labrador, joined the Delta Police Department, where he shot to fame last year after being the first dog to be used in a B.C. courtroom. Caber accompanied a young sexual assault victim as she testified at a trial in Surrey provincial court.

Though a Labrador’s disposition is typically suitable to the type of work, Tara Dong of PADS said trainers allow the dog to choose their own path. Dong said Lucca and Caber are dogs that seek out people in moments of crisis.

“A lot of dogs would shy away from people like that – it’s a little scary, a little unnerving for them,” Dong said. “Lucca is one of those dogs that seeks people out when they’re upset. But more importantly, at the end of the day, he knows how to shake it off and not kind of carry all that emotion that gets unloaded onto him.”

An assistance dog can cost up to $35,000 to train. PADS recently received a $60,000 grant from the government’s civil forfeiture branch to help with funding of the society’s intervention canine program.

Lucca will turn four in June. How long he works is an open question.

Laura Watamanuk, executive director of PADS, said her organization will regularly assess Lucca’s ability to ensure he is capable of continuing to work.

“We’re really monitoring the dog throughout the working career and if Sue senses, or our client care manager senses the dog is getting to the age where we should start thinking and talking about retirement, then we do,” Watamanuk said.

Baker, meanwhile, said she feels privileged to have a new partner and family member by her side. But she reminded reporters that Lucca is still a dog and does get down time.

“When the [PADS] vest comes off and we’re at home, it’s a lot of play time, dog parks and walking,” she said.