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Faces of CSC: Arly Irvine

July 5, 2024

Arly Irvine, Mediator, Restorative Opportunities Program, Ontario Region

“Working with a service dog brings out the authenticity in people. Their guard drops… For me, because I have worked with people for so long, I do get to see that. It takes time for the walls to come down; but with the dog, the walls crumble quickly, and it is just something so special that people feel.”

Arly Irvine was in a criminology class when she first heard the words “restorative justice.” Something clicked for her in that moment, sending her on a career journey dedicated to harm prevention, education, and community building for youth in schools. 

woman with a dog

Arly Irvine with Zoe

This led to Arly joining Correctional Service Canada (CSC), as a mediator for its Restorative Opportunities program in 2018.

Arly’s passion for restorative justice is paralleled by her love for animals. “They have been a real gift to me throughout my life.”

She speaks of personal experiences where animals helped her reduce tension and anxiety; to feel calmer and present in the moment. These creatures bring her joy. She thought to herself, ‘What if I could bring the gift I experience to others, including everyone at CSC?’.

That's how Abby, an eight-week-old puppy and service dog in the making, made her debut alongside Arly in her work as a Restorative Opportunities mediator, delivering victim-offender mediation services. The Restorative Opportunities program offers people that were harmed by crime an opportunity to communicate with the offender who harmed them. The program focuses on meeting the needs of those involved. For victims, it may be telling the offender how the crime affected them, asking questions left unanswered, or seeking acknowledgement and some accountability.

When she first took Abby to work in CSC institutions, Arly was a bit nervous not knowing how she would be received by staff and offenders. The reception was more positive than she could have imagined.

“The benefits were immediately obvious,” she says. Abby brought moments of happiness that helped in building a relationship of trust so important in this work with victims, offenders, and CSC staff.

Walking with her dog in the institutions, staff members spontaneously approached them and immediately engaged with Abby. They would share personal stories about their pets at home and how special their relationship with their animal is. Those moments of connection, Arly feels, are embedded in restorative justice.

“Relationships are built over a thousand cups of tea; small interactions that we have with one another, and personally. I try in those small interactions I have with people to pass on positivity and joy. But the dog really takes it to another level,” Arly says.

Arly describes Abby as being a “nightmare” as a puppy. She was curious, full of energy, and had difficulty laying down and staying still. While it brought some frustration because Arly felt like she couldn’t be fully present with the person she was meeting, the benefits of Abby's presence exceeded any downside of her ‘puppy in-training’ quirks. The inmates Arly met with in the Restorative Opportunities program would try to help train her and get her to settle.

Abby in training

“We were working together on something positive. So again, it sped up our relationship building, and provided some lightness to these often difficult and very traumatizing events that they had to rehash and relive,” says Arly.

Abby accompanied Arly to four in-person victim-offender mediation processes in their two years together. Arly is conscious and respectful of the fact that not everybody likes dogs. Some may be afraid or even allergic to them. Arly remembers one victim who was preparing for a victim-offender mediation dialogue. She found having Abby near her was a challenge, as the victim was scared. Regardless, this victim would still invite Abby to come to the meetings.

“She was quite surprised and impressed with herself as she kept an open mind about the dog and in doing this really difficult work of meeting the person who harmed her. She got to really enjoy Abby,” says Arly. “For her, overcoming her fear of dogs was equated to overcoming her fear of meeting the offender.”

Arly also shares a funny story about Abby being present during a face-to-face meeting and the unpredictability of having a dog along with her while delivering Restorative Opportunities services. The discussion between the victim and the offender had been going on for some time and Abby had fallen asleep. At one point, Arly recalls a heightened moment where a heavy silence was floating in the room. The direction that the rest of the discussion would take seemed uncertain.

“We could all feel the tension. We sat there and then, in that moment, Abby snored so loud that everyone just broke out laughing! Initially, I was like ‘Oh my gosh, I am so sorry!’ And they were laughing…I couldn’t have cued it better! Then, the tension broke, and they were able to go on to deeper conversations.”

Studies show that dogs can alleviate stress and anxiety commonly experienced by victims and witnesses during the criminal justice process. Studies also show that the use of dogs can lead to more complete and accurate testimony.

Abby has now been assigned to someone in the community as a therapy dog. Abby served as a trial run for Arly to see if a dog would have an impact. Seeing the joy, the relationships, and connections that the dog helped facilitate, convinced her that she needed to do this on a more permanent basis.

“Here we are! I am training my second dog!” she says.

This time around, three-year-old Zoe will stay with Arly after she graduates from therapy dog training. Zoe will soon be certified and ready to come along with Arly while she delivers restorative justice services.

Learn more about Restorative justice and CSC's Restorative Opportunities program.

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Let’s Talk is a publication of Correctional Service Canada (CSC). Let’s Talk shares stories new and old of the people and programs at CSC. These stories provide an engaging window into how CSC fulfills its mission of contributing to public safety and assisting in rehabilitation. Let’s Talk is your home for informative articles, podcasts, and videos about CSC.

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