Credit: City of Mississauga

The City of Mississauga’s newest employee, Ajax the two-year-old golden labrador retriever, is dogged in his pursuit of better mental health for emergency services personnel.

Ajax, a facility dog from National Service Dogs, is available to Mississauga Fire and Emergency Services staff as part of the department’s wellness-fitness initiative. The goal of having Ajax on-site is to help employees open up about their mental health.

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“As part of our whole mental-health program and our [post-traumatic stress disorder] prevention plan . . . it’s all about the preventative work, removing the stigma of mental health [and] having the ability for people to talk more openly about occupational stress injuries, about those bad calls,” says Tim Beckett, Mississauga’s fire chief and director of emergency management. “Firefighters are going to attend those bad calls, but it’s about how we proactively deal with the people afterward to build resiliency and take away some of that stress.”

Ajax has been trained to sense and approach people who are under stress and act as a companion to them.

Earlier this year, the City of Mississauga held a health fair with the National Service Dogs taking part to showcase its program. That gave the department the idea, says Beckett, and staff began looking into how to bring a dog on board.

The department needed to get support from city council and administration and then address human resources issues — such as identifying if any employees had dog allergies, were afraid of dogs or didn’t want one around — and legal concerns around liability.

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While Ajax is still owned by the National Service Dogs, he lives with his handler Ryan Coburn, one of the co-chairs of the wellness-fitness initiative and a section chief in the fire department’s training division. The wellness-fitness initiative has a set of secondary handlers who can bring Ajax to fire stations in the city while his primary handler is at work and talk with employees about their mental health.

“[Ajax] works a 40-hour workweek just like Ryan and doesn’t stay here at night. He doesn’t come in on weekends unless it’s something very special,” says Beckett says. “He won’t go out at night unless it’s something very significant that we would need to interact with the crews right away.”

While Ajax works primarily with the MFES, Beckett says the department would bring him to other city divisions if there was a need. “It’s surprising how much of a difference a dog in the room makes, in terms of making people feel better, more relaxed and allowing a more open dialogue to happen.”

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Copyright © 2020 Transcontinental Media G.P. Originally published on

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