A trail-blazing Labrador-Retriever who offers comfort and emotional support to victims of crime throughout the criminal justice system – the first of his kind in Europe and first to be placed at a university – has been honoured by vet charity PDSA.
The PDSA Order of Merit celebrates extraordinary animals who demonstrate the unique bond between animals and humans – a bond that is PDSA’s mission to protect. Oliver was awarded the PDSA Order of Merit at a special ceremony, in London, on 14 July, alongside five other incredible dogs who also received the same prestigious medal.
Six-year-old Oliver, is recognised for the unconditional comfort and intuitive bond he has with vulnerable victims of crime, many of them children.
The Black Labrador-Retriever’s pioneering work at Canterbury Christ Church University, working with Kent Police, and supporting NHS staff during the pandemic, makes him a thoroughly deserving recipient through his devotion to duty and outstanding service to society.
Oliver helps the most vulnerable members of society to find justice, by supporting them during crucial phases of giving evidence. He offers calm and quiet companionship to traumatised people during stressful legal procedures, helping children and adults to relax when giving evidence on harrowing situations, including child abuse, rape, and violence.
Oliver is introduced to people prior to any formal procedures, to build their trust. He then stays at their side throughout the interview process, and is trained to react to their emotional distress by placing his body close to them.
The unique work that Oliver does within the criminal justice system has helped transform and radically improve support services available to vulnerable victims.
Oliver’s handler, Dr Elizabeth Spruin, is Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Canterbury Christ Church University in Kent and Founder and Director at Justice Facility Dogs UK.
Dr Spruin’s own research into justice facility dogs in America and Canada led her to Duo Dogs, a non-for-profit organisation in the USA, who train justice facility dogs. Oliver completed two years of initial training at Duo dogs. He was then donated by Duo and once training was complete, Dr Spruin brought him over to the UK, and her bond with Oliver is closer than ever.
Dr Spruin, said: “Oliver was born and bred to do this work and has trained in mock courtrooms and police stations – and is now excelling in his role, helping hundreds of vulnerable people every year through the comfort and support he provides. Oliver is transforming the justice system and I hope he will be the first of many dogs to go on to help thousands of anxious victims in very difficult circumstances. I’m so proud of how far Oliver has come and I’m delighted that PDSA is honouring his pioneering work.”
Dr Spruin’s work and research with Oliver will build an evidence base to prove to criminal justice agencies just how beneficial justice-facility dogs can be for vulnerable people. The research hopes to influence policy change within the UK criminal justice system.
Oliver is a wonderful example of how animals can significantly improve wellbeing and assist those most in need of support. With his unwavering devotion to duty and service to society, Oliver is making an incredible contribution to hundreds of lives in the UK and globally. Importantly, he is also assisting in research to help transform the support that is available for victims. He gives comfort and companionship during one of the worst times in a child or adult’s life.
Nina Downing, PDSA Vet Nurse
Professor Mohamed Abdel-Maguid, Pro Vice-Chancellor (STEM) and Dean of the Faculty of Science, Engineering, and Social Science at Canterbury Christ Church University, commended their work. "We are extremely honoured for Oliver to be awarded the prestigious PDSA Order of Merit and are incredibly proud of Dr Elizabeth Spruin’s pioneering work within the criminal justice system.
He added: “As the only Justice Facility Dog in the UK and the very first of his kind in Europe, Oliver has not only helped to radically improve the support that is provided to vulnerable victims but has also made a strong impact which has led to important changes to current services.
“Outside of his work in the criminal justice system, Oliver is also a valued member of staff at Canterbury Christ Church University. Dr Spruin and Oliver’s’ achievements truly illustrate the University’s commitment to fostering innovation that is inspiring, creative, valued, and most importantly, makes a difference to the communities we serve.”
Much of Oliver’s work has been alongside Kent Police, helping to gain vital evidence from children and vulnerable adults.Detective Constable Rachel Freeman, a specialist safeguarding officer based in the Protecting Vulnerable People command at Kent Police, commented: “I have seen first-hand how Oliver can help a child or young person who has been traumatised by something that has happened to them, or something they have seen. It is really important for an investigation that the police have as much evidence as possible, to make sure that those who commit crime are caught and put before the courts, so Oliver’s work is invaluable in ensuring criminals are brought to justice. I am so proud that Oliver has been awarded the PDSA Order of Merit and that his work has been formally recognised. Hopefully this will raise the profile of the project and encourage other police forces to introduce a justice facility dog like Oliver, giving victims extra support.”
Read more about Oliver’s PDSA Order of Merit here.
Notes to Editors
For hundreds of thousands of pets, PDSA is a lifeline that prevents the unnecessary pain and suffering that may come from their owners being unable to afford veterinary treatment.
PDSA believes that everyone, no matter what their circumstances, has the right to experience the unique bond, love and companionship that comes from owning a pet.
PDSA receives no government funding towards running its veterinary services and is supported by the generosity of the pet-loving public who donate to make sure the charity can be there for a pet when they need help most.
In 2021, the charity provided 1.8 million veterinary treatments to over 370,000 pets in 48 Pet Hospitals in some of the UK’s most deprived areas.
The PDSA Order of Merit, instituted in 2014, is given in recognition for exceptional acts of devotion to their owner or wider society and represents outstanding examples of the special bond that exists between animals and humans.
The PDSA Order of Merit is part of PDSA’s Animal Awards Programme, which was instituted in 1943 by the charity’s founder Maria Dickin, CBE. Then and now, PDSA believes that raising the status of animals in society helps improve the care they receive and their welfare.
To date, 36 animals have been awarded the PDSA Order of Merit – 12 horses and 24 dogs.