Emergency Services Times travelled to New Scotland Yard recently to meet PC Mike Sheather and Dexter, the Metropolitan Police’s first wellbeing dog.
Emergency Services Times (EST): What is your background as a police dog handler?
Mike Sheather (MS): I have always had dogs in my life, and I knew I wanted to be a dog handler soon after I joined the police, in 1993. I started training my first general purpose puppy, Boz, in 2006 and we began working together in the summer of 2007. Specialising in Trojan Support a few years later, assisting armed colleagues’ in-house searches and spontaneous incidents across the Met. We quickly established a close and very strong bond, built on mutual trust.
My second dog, in 2012, was Rudy, another general-purpose dog who specialised in victim recovery. Today, most police dog handlers have two dogs: a general-purpose dog trained in searching, tracking, detaining; and a second dog, typically a spaniel or Labrador. In my case, my spaniel is trained in detection of firearms, ammunition, drugs and cash. Others are trained to be deployed at crime scenes as Forensic Evidence dogs.
EST: How did Dexter become a wellbeing dog?
MS: Dexter is a pedigree black Labrador, bred by the Met Police at Keston. He was earmarked for training as a passive scan drugs dog. However, he was withdrawn from his training in week four for being too sociable. He wanted to interact too much with people and was not enjoying the detection work.
His withdrawal from training coincided with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
EST: How was the need for a Wellbeing Dog identified?
MS: DCI James Fox of the Directorate of Professional Standards, who oversaw staff occupational health, linked in Dog Training Instructor Constable Sean Turner at our Dog School and Sean started taking police dogs into the PMART Hubs (Pandemic Multi-Agency Response Team hubs) that were set up in London. The PMART Hubs brought together police, fire and ambulance staff to deal with the impacts of COVID, including dealing with the bodies of the deceased – a challenging task at what was a very stressful time for everyone. I then started assisting Sean with this and due to his other commitments at the Dog School; I took over the responsibility for facilitating the visits until the hubs were stood down on 15 May. The visits proved very popular with all the personnel staffing the hubs.
“Interacting with Dexter removes you from the everyday stresses you are facing and helps you to simply focus in the moment.”
EST: How does Dexter help people?
MS: Wherever he goes, Dexter gets a very positive response from people. Petting a dog releases oxytocin into the body. This balances the stress hormone cortisol and reduces anxiety, lowers blood pressure and reduces your respiratory rate. This makes people feel calmer and less stressed.
Interacting with Dexter removes you from the everyday stresses you are facing and helps you to simply focus in the moment.
Meeting and interacting with Dexter is a welcome distraction and helped to raise morale. During Mental Health Awareness week, in May, Dexter visited each of the Met Taskforce Hubs, giving staff the opportunity to talk to each other openly, raise concerns regarding their wellbeing and find out how to get support.
I serve within the MO7, the Met Taskforce. I am a trained Mental Health First Aider as well. This means I can signpost anybody we meet who needs professional support.
New police recruits go straight from college to working on the street, where with relatively little life experience they can encounter some truly gruesome scenes. Fortunately, mental health support for serving police officers is much better today.
Anecdotally, we have had people who found meeting and interacting with Dexter proved to be the gateway they needed to access counselling.
EST: Are there any other dogs carrying out similar roles in the police?
MS: Yes, there are other wellbeing dogs working with the police. However, Dexter is the only operational police dog who works as a wellbeing dog. As an operational police dog Dexter is authorised to work in all police settings without needing any vetting or accreditation. With COVID bringing in more restrictions, this has meant he can carry on working while civilian dogs have not been able to.
EST: Could other emergency services learn from the work that Dexter has been doing?
MS: Blue light services are more prone to mental health issues. In addition to the stresses of their working life, which are often extreme, there still remains a stigma attached to opening up about mental health. Wellbeing dogs do serve in other sections of the emergency services, but now Dexter is unique in that he is an ‘in-house’ dog. Other forces/emergency services use third party civilian dogs.
EST: What does the future hold for Mike and Dexter?
MS: The Met has now set up a wellbeing therapy dog scheme, initially as a six-month trial, in which we now serve. Any officer or member of police staff can request a visit as long as an Inspector or line sergeant countersigns the request. The visits are for officers/staff that have dealt with a traumatic event, inside or outside of work, or for officers and staff who routinely undertake difficult or challenging tasks in the workplace.
This is a lot more than a simple ‘pat and chat’ service. There is a serious side to our work in helping to raise awareness of mental health issues and helping people to access help when they need it. It is very well supported by senior officers.
Our visits planned next month include providing a de-stressing session for officer ‘students’ on their basic firearms course to be an ARV officer, and also to the Hendon Police Academy to provide a wellbeing session there. We are also going to see our colleagues in the NHS at Great Ormond Street Hospital who have had a difficult time during the COVID pandemic.
I have been asked to possibly link in with the charity COPS, which offers support for the families of officers who have died on duty, to discuss how we can help.
Working with Dexter is a very different type of dog handling and is very rewarding. If I can help just one person to feel better and to reach out for professional mental health support, that is a huge satisfaction. And of course, Dexter loves his work too.