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Bonnyville VSU welcome new dog, Romeo

BONNYVILLE – The Bonnyville Victim Services Unit's (VSU) newest four-legged member is ready to get to work.

Romeo is a two-year-old black lab who was placed with the local unit through Dogs with Wings, an Edmonton-based program that prepares dogs for a number of different careers. After learning the ropes, Romeo will be taking over the leash from retiring VSU dog Odie.

According to Romeo’s handler Connie Chileen, the assistant program manager for Bonnyville victim services, he came to Alberta from British Columbia through the Pacific Assistance Dogs Society before completing his training in Calgary.

Romeo and Chileen met for the first time during team training in Edmonton in March, where they became familiar with each other and ran through different scenarios they may encounter in the future.

“It was mostly training for us,” Chileen laughed. “The dogs were already trained. It was training for the people to say this is what you’re allowed to do, what you’re not allowed to do, and this is how things work.”

Chileen said Romeo was chosen as a VSU dog because “he loves all people, especially children, and he is very affectionate and cuddly.”

“He’s just able to handle a stressful situation, go home, and let it roll off his back,” she added. “He doesn’t take it home; he doesn’t take the stress home with him. That’s a good thing in a service dog because they need to release that stress.”

About a year ago, Dogs With Wings put Bonnyville in the queue for a new dog when Odie let his handler, Bonnyville VSU program manager Debbie Winstone, know he was getting ready for retirement.

Romeo will be shadowing Odie over the next few years until he’s ready to take the reins.

“If somebody comes into the office, both of them will go in to support that person. The same thing with court, when we go into court he will be coming as well and kind of getting used to the environment and the people,” Winstone detailed. “Then when we feel like ‘okay, he’s ready to go’ then he can start supporting the witnesses on the stand and that kind of thing.”

Odie joined the Bonnyville VSU in 2014, and at the time was just the second victim services dog in Canada to be placed with an RCMP-based VSU. Winstone got the ball rolling after seeing the success of the program in another community.

Along with being an ambassador in the community, the VSU dog supports Bonnyville RCMP members in interviews and offers emotional support for those who come in for help. Odie, and now Romeo, help victims when they take the stand in courts in Bonnyville, Lloydminster, Wainwright, St. Paul, Lac La Biche, and Vegreville.

Although Romeo officially became a member of the Bonnyville VSU in March, he hasn’t been into the office to start his duties due to the coronavirus. Although this isn’t the ideal situation, it's given Romeo and Chileen the chance to bond at home and for his personality to shine through.

“You put his vest on and he’s all business, he’s pretty calm and relaxed. When you take his vest off, he’s a little bit goofy and a little relaxed, fun-loving guy. He likes to roll over, get belly rubs, and he’s quite the character,” Chileen expressed.

Winstone and Chileen hope to be able to introduce Romeo to the community in the coming months.

“Once he’s here and we get going, we’ll make rounds around town with him and Odie and introduce him as much as we can,” noted Winstone.

Robynne Henry, Bonnyville Nouvelle

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