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Meet Benji, a service dog helping burn trauma survivors heal

The specially trained yellow lab works with a retired 31-year North Vancouver District firefighter to help survivors cope with stress and anxiety.

To local burn survivors, Benji is a very good boy.

The 3.5-year-old yellow lab is an operational stress intervention dog specifically trained to support burn and trauma survivors cope with anxiety.

Benji works with the BC Professional Fire Fighters’ Burn Fund, which provides services to the nearly 700 children and adults admitted each year to the Burn, Trauma and Plastics Units at Vancouver General Hospital and BC Children’s Hospital suffering serious trauma.

His handlers are retired 31-year District of North Vancouver firefighter Peter Hansen and his wife, Roxanne Gresham.

Benji’s trained to sense people under stress, and will go to them on his own or under his handlers’ direction, Hansen explained.

“He just puts pressure on their body with his [paw] or body,” he said. “And that grounds a person and lowers stress hormones.”

Hansen has been with the Burn Fund for 34 years, and manages the Home Away program, which provides short-term accommodation for burn and trauma survivors, as well as their families.

Hansen said he had a longer-term guest who was missing her dogs up in Whitehorse, and so she got to know Benji very well. “She and I would take him for walks, and it really helped her feel more at home.”

While visits have been limited during the pandemic, the Burn Fund is going back to in-person camps again, and Benji is set to stay an entire week with the kids there.

With restrictions lifting, Hansen expects he and Benji will be able to go to the burn units at BC Children’s Hospital and Vancouver General Hospital.

At home, Benji is “very laid back,” and loves his handlers’ two cats. But he becomes very focused when his working jacket gets put on.

“He knows he's working, and he just really settles down and gets to work,” Hansen said.

Benji was donated to the Burn Fund by Vancouver Island Compassion Dogs, a division of B.C. and Alberta Guide Dogs. 

In collaboration with VGH and UBC Hospital Foundation, the Burn Fund is selling tickets for the 2022 Hometown Heroes Lottery.

Proceeds will provide funds for specialized adult health services and research at VGH and UBC Hospital, GF Strong Rehab Centre, Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute and Vancouver Community Health Services. Tickets are on sale until midnight, July 14, or until they sell out.

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