- How did this project come about? I mean, who started it and for what reasons?
Victim support professionals, in the US and Canada, have – for many years – worked with facility dogs to offer support to the most vulnerable victims of crimes. In Europe, interest in this type of victim support has grown over the past 10 years, and a number of isolated, non-regulated, non-standardised initiatives were launched.
As Victim Support Europe is the European umbrella organisation that advocates for high quality services for victims of crime, we at felt that this was an initiative with much potential; however, as a network of victim support professionals, we knew little about dog training. So, in 2019, we partnered with victim support and dog training professionals to develop a highly standardised programme for the training of justice facility dogs and their handlers, under a watchful eye of university researchers. We knew that many victims could benefit from the support of facility dogs, but we needed to ensure that any programme offered to very vulnerable victims was fail-proof and closely monitored.
That is how the idea of FacilitY Dogs Europe (FYDO) came into being. In 2020, in partnership with organisations in Belgium, France and Italy, we were granted funding by the European Commission to develop the first standardised facility dogs’ programme in Europe.
- What are the project’s objectives?
It is recognised that participation in criminal proceedings significantly increases the re-victimisation of, and prolongs trauma in, vulnerable victims. As victims of crime are subjected to stressful activities – such as medical examinations, interviews at police stations, or testifying in a courtroom – the presence of a FYDO dog can help reduce their stress, and make victims feel safer and more empowered in their role in the justice system.
However, European justice systems are often conservative and quite traditional; their lack of recognition of victims’ needs is already a challenge and innovation is rarely welcomed. Then, the police, judiciary, and victim support providers had concerns about involving an animal in the judicial process. It was very obvious that many obstacles would need to be overcome.
The project, therefore, had three main objectives. Firstly, we wanted to provide high-level standards of training for dogs working in sensitive environments (police interviews, court hearings, therapy sessions) with very vulnerable victims. Secondly, we wanted to develop convincing arguments to ensure that the use of FYDO dogs is integrated within national victim support frameworks. The third objective of the FYDO project was to create victim-safe environments in the criminal justice system. We hoped to develop tools and mechanisms to maximise victims’ active participation while minimising the risk of secondary victimisation and further harm.
- Which victims do this project and the dogs help?
Under the EU’s Victims’ Rights Directive, every victim entering the justice system has the right to have their needs assessed and all support provided should be tailored to those needs. The support provided by FYDO dogs is appropriate not only for young victims, but also for victims with disabilities, and victims of sexual and intimate partner violence. More generally, the presence of dogs is beneficial to – in principle – all humans and the use of FYDO dogs can potentially improve how victims experience their journey to justice and recovery. Of course, for a variety of reasons, not all victims will agree to being supported by a FYDO dog, such as allergies, phobias or cultural obstacles.
- How do dogs help the victims? Please explain the ways the dogs can positively impact the victims’ experiences.
FYDO dogs are facility dogs, and we are very careful to always use this term. Their job is to facilitate the justice process for victims who receive their support. There is scientific evidence that, in the presence of a dog, our stress levels decrease, and our heart rate slows down. Having dogs attend stressful events with the victims, such as when testifying in court, helps victims remain calmer in their presence.
Facility dogs help victims communicate on difficult issues and about the traumatic events they experienced; their support can be provided during police and prosecution interviews, trial and court hearings, hospital examinations, a victim’s visit to or stay in victim support services, etc. Victims explain that they don’t feel judged by the dog; therefore, those victims who may feel ashamed or self-conscious when sharing their stories, feel better by talking as if to the dog, knowing that the dog will not blame them.
Trauma science indicates that, if a victim can balance a traumatic experience with a more pleasant memory, recovery can be achieved and the incidence of post-traumatic disorders reduced.  Thus, when a FYDO dog accompanies a traumatised victim, who is describing their experience, the next time the victim thinks of that experience they will also think of the canine companion whose presence allowed them to retell the event. This is proven to help their recovery and reduce incidence of PTSD.
- Where are the dogs, who help vulnerable victims, from?
As FYDO Europe promotes highly standardised training for dogs, we require that a FYDO dog are sourced from ethical breeders and trained by either members or candidate members of Assistance Dogs International (ADI). The dogs are usually Labradors or Golden Retrievers, dogs that are well known for their calm and empathetic natures. However, all FYDO dogs are carefully selected and screened before put to work. Dog training associations select facility dogs based on criteria related to their nature and behaviour. In the courtroom or other official environment, the dogs must be trusted to remain calm, not bark, growl or misbehave in any way; and they must remain focused on the victim. FYDO dog training programmes take about two years and as a result dogs react to some 40 to 50 commands.
- What results have you achieved with the project?
During the project, a total of six dogs were trained in France, Belgium and Italy.
In France, we partnered with Viaduq 67, a Strasbourg-based victim support association and member of France Victimes Federation, and Handi’Chiens the French member of ADI. Through this collaboration, Orphée, France Victimes’ first official facility dog, now works with victims in Strasbourg. France Victimes, the French national federation of victim support associations, have engaged with the initiative and seven more dogs support victims across France. By the end of 2023, it is expected that at least 15 dogs will work within the network; several dogs will be placed in locations where they can directly support victims at the point of contact (e.g. police stations, emergency medical units etc.).
In Italy, three dogs – Brio, Love and Ofelia, have been trained by our partners Dogs4Life, the Italian ADI member, who use the dogs to provide mobile services and to work with victim support associations in Tuscany.
In Belgium, two FYDO dogs were trained and placed by our partner ADI members – Hachiko and Canisha. Fluf works in the victims’ office of the Ghent police and Sam is working with vulnerable children and youths in Jeugdzorg Emmaüs Antwerpen.
In October 2022, the project partners agreed to launch the European FYDO Network which we hope will become home for all FYDO dog training initiatives and which will encourage victim support and dog training professionals to collaborate on training more dogs and supporting many more victims.
- Why are dogs important to victim support?
The FYDO service operates within a larger framework of victim support. We can only train and use a limited number of dogs, and we must be careful when and how we introduce them to victims. For many victims, dogs are an extra support resource within an existing well executed national support framework, but the dog’s presence does not necessarily affect their experience since their needs are addressed through other means. However, for some others, the support offered by a FYDO dog can completely transform their experience, and enable their participation in criminal proceedings and/or improve their post-traumatic recovery.
We must ensure that all victims within both these groups receive the support they need; for members of the latter group, whenever their individual assessment determines the need for FYDO support, a dog should be available. Stakeholders – governmental authorities, police officers, judges, prosecutors, etc. – must be shown, and be convinced, that access to appropriately trained FYDO dogs can support victims in all judicial and medical environments. And to achieve that, we must continue to insist on a high standard of FYDO training and service delivery.
 Molecular Biomarkers of Adult Human and Dog Stress during Canine-Assisted Interventions (Gandenberger et al, 2022); dogs in the criminal justice system: consideration of facility and therapy dogs (Spruin, E. and Mozova, K, 2018)