“We need dogs like these in Chile,” said Seattle Police Department videographer Cesar Hidalgo-Landeros. It was 2007, and Cesar and I were in the middle of editing a training video about courthouse dogs, professionally trained canines who provide crime victims with emotional support during the investigation and prosecution stages. We had just watched a film clip of a five-year-old girl telling courthouse dog Stilson how she had been sexually abused.
At the time, I had concerns about the U.S. legal system embracing the idea of dogs participating in forensic interviews and appearing in the courtroom; I couldn’t imagine Chile being receptive to the idea. The deadline for our video production loomed, so we dropped the discussion and got back to work.
Two years later, my consulting partner, Celeste Walsen, DVM, and I gave a presentation on our “Courthouse Dogs” program at an Assistance Dogs International conference. One of the first questions came from a young woman in the back of the auditorium, who wanted to know if we could come to her country to tell people about this concept. Celeste and I love to travel, so I said, “Sure,” and then thought to ask where she lived. She said she was from Santiago, Chile.
Months went by, and I was caught up in my job as a deputy prosecuting attorney. Then came the invitation. The young woman whose request we had so casually accepted, Cecilia Marré, turned out to be the director of Chile’s Corporación Bocalán Confiar, and in June 2009, she wrote with a formal appeal for assistance. I rushed into Cesar’s studio and told him about Cecilia’s invitation. I also said that this remarkable coincidence meant that he had to travel with us. To persuade him, I added that his work with the Seattle Police Department might make the idea of using dogs with victims more acceptable to the law-enforcement officers who investigate these crimes. Cesar readily agreed to accompany us, and also offered to help with translating our presentations to Chilean government officials.
To prepare, I studied up on Chile’s criminal justice system, learning that the country had only recently adopted the adversarial model long utilized in the U.S., and that Chileans are passionate about implementing trial procedures that assure justice for everyone. In the meantime, Cesar entered a three-minute YouTube video, “Dogs in the Courthouse,” in a contest sponsored by the Washington State Bar Association to find the short film that best demonstrated a Northwest perspective on “Justice for All.” Cesar said that if he won, he would donate any prize money he received to Bocalán Confiar to help them promote a courthouse dogs program. In September, just two days before our departure for Chile, Cesar learned that he had won both the judges’ and the People’s Choice awards!
After a long flight, we arrived in Santiago and were greeted by customs dogs sniffing luggage for fruits and vegetables. To our surprise, these Labradors were working off-lead, with their handlers standing by, monitoring their behavior. As the dogs went about their business, they also accepted a few pats from the passengers. What a lovely introduction to the country this was.
Cecilia picked us up, and asked if we would be interested in seeing therapy dogs from Bocalán Confiar work with a physical therapist treating a disabled child. On our way to the facility, she told us that in Chile, veterinary students sometimes become certified dog handlers and assist physical therapists. We also learned that in some countries, the term “therapy dog” has a different meaning than it does in the U.S. In South America and Europe, for example, therapy dogs are what we call professionally trained assistance dogs.
When we arrived at the clinic, we saw Alejandra Santelices and her Labrador Retriever, Peseta, in a cheerful room, working with a physical therapist and a little girl. Peseta sat patiently across a table from the child, who had a bowl of dog kibble in front of her. She painstakingly dipped a spoon into the bowl, filled it with kibble and lifted it to Peseta’s mouth. She was delighted when Peseta ate delicately from the spoon.