work of dogs
News: Guest Posts
Photographer Charlotte Dumas pays tribute to canine heroes
It is hard to believe it’s been 10 years since the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the crash of United Airlines Flight 93. The memories and the impact are still so fresh. But one place you can see the passage of time is in the gray muzzles and clouded eyes of the surviving Search and Rescue (SAR) dogs.
With the tenth anniversary looming, Dutch photographer Charlotte Dumas tracked down 15 surviving rescue dogs who assisted emergency crews searching for survivors. She traveled around the country and photographed these aging heroes in their homes. The noble and vulnerable images are a beautiful tribute to the efforts of all the SAR teams in those frightening and challenging days.
The portraits have been collected and will be published on 9/11/11 in Retrieved, a paperback volume with Japanese binding. (Available from The Ice Plant.) In addition, seven of her favorite images will be sold at a special silent auction to benefit the First Responder Alliance, which helps rescue and recovery workers and their families develop critical support systems.
The auction will be September 29, 2011, 6–8 pm at Clic Gallery, 255 Centre Street, NYC. The seven auction prints will be accompanied by the photographer’s personal notes as well as memorabilia including snapshots of the dog at work during the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
See a slideshow of images from the book at The New York Times.
News: Guest Posts
Famed Guide Dog of 9/11 remembered in new book
Ten years ago, Guide Dog Roselle, a three-year-old yellow Labrador Retriever, was sleeping under a desk on the 78th floor of Tower One of the World Trade Center. Her partner, Michael Hingson, was preparing for a routine training meeting when he heard the explosion.
The date: September 11, 2001.
Stairs were the only way out. So Michael Hingson, who is blind from birth, worked in tandem with Roselle, taking 1,463 steps down 78 floors to safety.
I met Michael Hingson five years after the September 11 tragedy. He and I were in Raleigh, N.C., with our guide dogs, both of us presenting at a 2006 conference for people who work in blind services. Michael’s speech about experiences with Roselle on 9/11 wowed the crowd.
“You have got to write a book!” I told him at the hotel bar after our presentations. Michael is a good talker. Roselle was already asleep when we arrived. After guiding me to a seat at the bar, my Seeing Eye dog, a Golden Retriever/Lab cross named Hanni, had the good sense to settle in with her co-worker under our bar stools.
Sipping a cocktail, Michael explained how he’d left a 27-year career in high-tech computer sales and management to accept a position at Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB) as National Public Affairs director. In a country where 70 percent of people who are blind are unemployed, his career path is miraculous enough, not to mention surviving September 11 with Roselle. He was quick to point out he’d already hooked up with the publisher of AKC Gazette to write his book.
Michael and I kept up via email after the conference, and when I finally got my courage up and asked how the book was coming along, Michael responded that “it just never came together.”
Enter Susy Flory. After contacting Michael last year about including his 9/11 story in a book she was writing called Dog Tales, she asked if he had any interest in writing a book. “She told me she’d be willing to help me with it,” he said. “It just clicked.”
Thunder Dog: The True Story of a Blind Man, His Guide Dog, and the Triumph of Trust at Ground Zero by Michael Hingson with Susy Flory was published by Thomas Nelson Publishers last month. One instance in Thunder Dog that really sticks with me is when Michael and Roselle found themselves in a subway station on 911. Everyone there had smoke and dirt in their eyes—they were all, in fact, blind, and each one terribly frightened of falling into the tracks. Poor Roselle, I don’t know how she could see or breathe, but she managed to guide all of them to safety.
Michael is traveling with his new guide, a yellow Lab named Africa, to promote the book for the ten-year anniversary of the tragedy. He says his Guide Dog’s spirit never diminished during their 78-story stairwell descent on September 11, 2011, and that spirit was evident during the six-and-a-half years the two of them spent together afterwards traveling hundreds of thousands of miles throughout the United States and the world to speak about trust and teamwork.
“If anything, Roselle’s spirit grew even stronger after 9/11,” says Hingson, who has left Guide Dogs for the Blind to start his own company, now speaking to corporations and organizations on behalf of the Michael Hingson Group. “I want people to understand that the real handicap of blindness is not a lack of eyesight, but a lack of proper education about blindness,” he says. And while Roselle is no longer with him physically, Hingson knows her spirit will always, always be with him. “She helps me be a better person today, and everyday.”
Here’s a video preview with Michael Hingson (and Africa) and Susy Flory:
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Super Sniffers—there’s a new pooch at the firehouse.
If you were to make a Molotov cocktail, you’d have to wash your hands at least 17 times before a dog would be unable to detect traces of petroleum on your skin. Until fairly recently, this information probably was not much of a concern to would-be flame-throwers.But these days, arsonists of every stripe should beware. While most fire departments have phased out the Dalmatian, fire investigative units have been adding another dog to their teams.
Since the mid-1980s, an elite cadre of canines has been using the ability for smelling in the parts-per-quintillion to help investigators determine whether a fire was deliberately set, and sometimes even who set it. The more than 200 arson dogs (formally known as accelerant- detection dogs) working today can quickly and accurately sniff out tiny amounts of anything from lamp oil to lighter fluid in a scene flooded with several inches of water or covered in snow, ice, mud or thick layers of fire debris.
“The K-9s have the ability to survey a variety of terrain in a fire scene in an incredibly short time,” says Jerry Means, an agent with the Colorado Bureau of Investigations. “The dogs dramatically increase the investigator’s ability to retrieve an accurate reflection of the flammable products present in a fire scene and increase the chances of collecting a positive sample.” Of course, it can be equally important when a dog does not alert to fire-starting substances—helping to rule out arson.
Means investigated approximately 800 fires with his first arson dog, a black Lab named Erin. “We had a fire that occurred in a home where three small children were killed in the blaze,” he says. The fire initially looked like a tragic accident, and an arson dog was not going to be used. “However, considering the magnitude of the loss, it was decided to throw every available tool at the fire investigation.”
Erin alerted a dozen times in the area where it was believed the fire started. Based on these samples tested at the lab, investigators determined that the blaze had been set intentionally. “After four years of investigative work and two separate trials, the children’s father and mother were each convicted of three counts of first-degree murder.”
Means acquired his dogs, first Erin and later Sadie, through a program run by State Farm Insurance Company. Since 1993, the Bloomington, Ill.–based underwriter has teamed up with Maine Specialty Dogs and the Maine Criminal Justice Academy to provide arson dogs— about 10 per year—to communities where at least 50 suspicious fires occur annually. Most dogs are placed so they can help the greatest number of people, and they and their handlers often help neighboring jurisdictions. Overall, 250 State Farm–sponsored teams have set to work in 43 states, three Canadian Provinces and the District of Columbia.
Once an arson dog is certified and placed with a handler, he or she works every day of the year and must be recertified annually. Captain Stephen Baer, founder of the arson dog program at the Seattle Fire Department, recently put his dog Henny through her paces.
Out on the blacktop at a fire-training center south of the city, Baer has set up a simulation. Before I arrive, he has burned a carpet remnant with a torch, squeezed one drop of 50 percent evaporated gasoline in two spots, and burned it a second time. He has also put a tiny drop on a T-shirt in a row of clothes (to simulate a clothing lineup).
At some distance from the demo area, he dons a belt with a kibble pouch. Henny tunes in, ignoring the floating cotton that had captivated her only moments earlier. “She goes from being friendly and looking for Chicken McNuggets on the ground to, Oh, Dad put the belt on, now I’m looking for gasoline,” Baer says. With out the belt, they could walk through a sea of hydrocarbons and she wouldn’t react.
“Seek,” Baer says, as we near the carpet. Henny eagerly noses the ground for a few seconds, then sits on the edge of the carpet and stares at Baer. An alert. “Good,” he says, passing her some kibble. “Show me better.” She circles and sniffs again, then sits in almost the same spot. “Good,” he says in a high, happy voice. More kibble. Baer always asks Henny to double-check and pinpoint the location where she alerts.
If this were a fire scene, Baer would place a clean poker chip on the spot. That’s for the fire investigator, who follows up and determines whether to take a sample and send it to the lab. This process cuts down on time-consuming guesswork in the field. Plus, fewer and better samples cut down on the workload at overburdened crime labs.
In the messy, chaotic aftermath of a real fire, Baer might also point exactly to each spot he wants her to check, saying, “Seek. Seek. Seek.” Arson dogs are taught to discriminate among the variety of scents they might confront at a fire scene —plus deliberate distractions such as beef jerky—and to alert only to substances used to start fires.
Henny joined the Accelerant Detection K-9 Program at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) after flunking out of guide-dog training due to an overactive sniffer. The majority of arson dogs in the United States are trained and certified either by ATF or State Farm. The ATF program dates back to 1984, and 127 accelerant-detection dogs have been placed with agencies in the U.S. and 21 foreign countries since 1991. (It’s a small number, especially when compared to the 595 explosives-detection dogs certified in that same period.)
March 2006, the teammates have been apart only once—during Baer’s honeymoon. They train twice a day to keep Henny’s skills sharp; also, Henny only eats when she’s working. She is always fed from Baer’s hand, as is common with most arson dogs.
Accelerant-detection dogs aren’t limited to fire scenes. Jerry Means’ current arson dog, Sadie, was called in to “survey” two juveniles in a fire at an abandoned flour mill in Longmont, Colo. The suspects originally denied involvement, but when the dog alerted to their shoes, it was only 15 minutes before they confessed to starting the fire.
Arson dogs also make appearances in courtrooms when handlers present evidence—including the dog’s training and experience, and the procedure followed at the incident in question.
What makes a good arson dog? “The ideal dog has high energy,” says Paul Gallagher, the owner-trainer of Maine Specialty Dogs. “It’s basically the semi-problem child.” A former Maine State Police K-9 trainer and supervisor, Gallagher saw one of the first accelerantdetection dogs being trained back in the day, and decided to train one for Maine. This led to training arson dogs for other departments. When he retired from the police force in 1996, he paired up with State Farm to continue the work. State Farm covers the $23,000 training costs for each dog.
Both ATF and State Farm prefer Labradors or Lab-mixes because of their curiosity, energy, tracking ability and easygoing demeanor. Guide dog training “dropouts” are particular favorites. Gunny is fairly typical. He had to find a new career when he slipped a hamburger right off the table in front of a blind person. Now a State Farm–sponsored arson dog in Grand Haven Township, Mich., he’s great at his job because he’s extremely motivated to work for kibble.
Susan Piron of Lake Gaston, N.C., has seen two of the five puppies she raised for Guiding Eyes for the Blind go on to careers in arson detection. In 2008, she was given the option of adopting Elway, a yellow Labrador she’d raised, when he didn’t seem suited for guide dog work. “That was probably the toughest decision,” Piron says, “whether to bring him back to the lake or let him go on to do something for other people and become the best he can be. Elway had a lot of energy and initiative; he needed a job.” Today, he sniffs out accelerants for the Connecticut State Police.
State Farm also enlists one- to twoyear- old dogs from humane societies and rescues, including one Hurricane Katrina rescue.
“We’ve saved a few from being put down,” Gallagher says.
Ultimately, though, it’s not about second chances for dogs so much as saving lives and money. An estimated 32,500 structural fires were set intentionally in 2007, resulting in 295 civilian deaths, according to the National Fire Protection Association’s most recent assessment. The cost in property loss due to arson for 2007 is estimated at around $733 million. Arson is tough to prove, but a dog is a huge asset.
a huge asset. “There is nothing in the pipeline that can equal the scent-ability of the dog that we can take to fire scenes and use,” Gallagher says. “The public needs to know those dogs are out there. It’s an elite group that does a good job … and they need the recognition.”
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
September events honor human and canine rescue teams
As we approach the tenth anniversary of 9/11, there are many victims to remember and many heroes to honor. Among those to pay tribute to are the hundreds of search and rescue (SAR) dogs who worked alongside police, firefighters, and other rescue workers at the World Trade Center. Like many others involved in the rescue efforts, canine SAR teams are mostly made up of volunteers who willingly put themselves at risk to help others.
SAR dog advocacy group, Finding One Another, is teaming up with the Tails of Hope Foundation, an organization dedicated to advancing veterinary and human medicine, to honor SAR teams through a series of commemorative and educational programs.
The following are three highlights from their September calendar. The Finding One Another website has details on additional events.
Recognition Ceremony at Liberty State Park (September 11 at 1 p.m. in Jersey City, N.J.)
The conference is chaired by Cynthia M. Otto, DVM, PhD, DACVECC, Co-Chair of the 9/11 Tenth Anniversary SAR Tribute and Associate Professor of Critical Care at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. Participants are expected to attend from all over the world.
SAR Photography & Artifact Exhibit (through September 2011 in West Nyack, N.Y.)
We owe so much to the dogs and handlers who worked alongside rescue workers on September 11th. It's important to advocate for them so that we never forget the risk they took, and still take, every time they come to the aid of people in need.
Dog's Life: Humane
It’s another monday morning, and I’m reading the Times and sipping my coffee at an hour when most respectable people are already at work, or at least on their way. Like I used to be. Bam! The “Arts” section flies into my face as Tillie, my two-year-old Lab, head-butts her way onto my lap.
“You need a job,” I tell her as I rub her ears and wipe the sleep out of her eyes.
“Hell, I need a job,” I add.
It’s true. But had I been employed, Tillie wouldn’t have been here in my New York apartment, watching my every move to see what the day would bring. On the contrary, she was a direct result of my lack of a job — the beneficiary of my desire to accomplish something worthwhile while I had free time on my hands. Tillie is the second puppy I’ve raised for the Guide Dog Foundation. The first, Cathy, is now a working guide dog, and the pride of my life. Tillie, though quite wonderful, is a slacker. It was allergies that got her booted out of the guide-dog program and onto my couch.
So now we find ourselves in the same boat. Long days stretch ahead of the two of us like shadows on a late-summer afternoon. The intervals between our snack breaks seem to be getting shorter and shorter, and if either one of us makes even the slightest move toward the kitchen, the other is right behind. Our once-idle friends, who were always available for a romp in the park or a late-afternoon glass of wine, have moved on to big jobs and left us behind. Corey, Tillie’s favorite yellow Lab, is off guiding in New Hampshire. Leslie, my pal since college, is working such long hours that I rarely see her.
Too much free time can make you crazy. I recognize Til lie’s obsessive tendencies only because they mirror my own. She keeps a steady watch for the mean dog next door: I constantly check for Facebook updates. On our daily runs, she pees in the exact same three spots and I count my steps between lampposts. She chases her tail, I fruitlessly launch résumés into the ether. Really, the only difference between us is her lack of concern about money.
We did try the volunteer circuit, even before Tillie was tossed from Guide Dogs. An outing with an elderly woman suffering from Parkinson’s disease nearly gave me a heart attack, with my Parkinson’s lady hanging on to my right arm for dear life as Tillie yanked in the opposite direction on my left. Maybe we’ll give it another shot when she’s a little older. And the therapy dog thing? Let’s just say that neither of us survived the screening process. But I do suspect we’ll both get over that and try again, sooner or later.
I feel bad about Tillie not having a job. I understand how she feels. Like in the mornings, when that ad with Roscoe the bedbug-sniffing dog comes on TV and her head swivels around from its spot on my pillow, her eyes blazing with envy. Or when folks ask how Cathy is doing, and I feel like I should cover Tillie’s ears before recounting the stories about what a superstar guide my first puppy has become.
But then again, maybe I’m just projecting. Maybe she really doesn’t want to work. In fact, when I think about it, it seems as though those “allergies” that were making her so itchy right before she was about to go in for her formal guide-dog training suspiciously disappeared as soon as she was released to me. And she does love that couch. But in my opinion, she’s way too young for retirement. And so am I.
Now, together, we’re trying out a new job. We’re helping to raise Bau, an eightmonth- old future guide dog. I have a lot to teach him, and he has a lot to learn — mostly how “not” to do things. Like how not to trample the daffodils, how not to run down the stairs with a dog bed in his mouth, and how not to launch a stealth attack over a glass coffee table. Tillie’s lessons seem to be more focused on things like successful strategies for tug-of-war, tag and keep-away.
I hope Tillie doesn’t become too much of a role model for Bau. After all, I don’t want him to get any big ideas. He only has five months or so to go before he heads off to work, and I worry that Tillie’s going to make this whole jobless thing look a lot more appealing than it really is. I guess I’ll just have to keep an eye on her, and make sure she keeps her opinions to herself. The last thing I need is another bum under my roof.
News: Guest Posts
Seeing Eye dog and handler tackle new hurdles on the road to recovery
[Editor's note: Frequent Bark blogger Beth Finke recently broke her foot and has been keeping us posted about what it means for her and her Seeing Eye dog, Harper. Read installments I and II in what we’re unofficially calling the “broken foot chronicles” and her most recent update, below.]
I’m in orthopedic shoes now—a real relief after eight weeks in a cast! Harper seems relieved, too. No more worries about being stepped on by Big Foot.
Along with the wide shank for added stability, the soles of both of my new orthopedic shoes have extra padding. I put them on, and suddenly I’m six feet tall! I hold Harper’s harness from a higher elevation now. When I lift the harness and tell him to pull me forward, he has to adjust to a totally different angle.
The three breaks in my left foot aren’t totally healed yet, and these are the only shoes I’m allowed to wear until the end of the month. I’m not supposed to go barefoot, even in the house.
Our first venture outside with the new shoes was slightly disappointing. No blare of trumpets. Passersby did not burst into song. I commanded, “Harper, forward!” and instead of leading me down the sidewalk, Harper took me to a car parked in front of our building.
Poor little guy. For the past eight weeks all I’ve been doing is asking him to guide me to cabs! A verbal correction got Harper back on track, and we were on our way. First stop? Across the street to Harper’s favorite tree.
The bumps on the wheelchair ramp usually tip me off we’re at the street crossing. I can’t feel the bumps through the three-inch soles on my orthopedic shoes. “Harper, forward!” We cross the street safely. “Good boy, Harper!”
A dip in the sidewalk used to alert me that we’re crossing the entrance to a parking lot. A mound of dirt around Harper’s tree used to tell me I could take his harness off and give him permission to do his thing. With these thick-soled shoes on, I can’t feel much of anything underfoot. So I just say a quick prayer to the gods of pee and poop that I’m not allowing Harper to empty somewhere he shouldn’t, then lean down from my six-foot perch to unbuckle his harness. “Park time!”
Harper circles, and once he stops, I do my best to move my over-protected foot near his tail. I slip a plastic bag over my hand and lean waaaaaay down (gee, did I tell you I’m six feet tall now?!) to feel through the plastic for lumps near my foot. After picking the lumps up, I flip the clean part of the bag over my palm and throw the bag away. Success!
Harper and I have steadily increased the length of our trips since then—he brought me to a parked car again yesterday, but once I corrected him, we were on our way again—this time circling the entire block.
Today, he ignored the parked cars in front of our building altogether and responded correctly to every “right!” and “left!” on our two-block walk to the bank. “Good dog!” On the way home he waited patiently at the street crossing while I waved my arm to and fro in search of the walk button. It was lower than it used to be. Hey, did I tell you I’m six...?
Okay, never mind.
Once we got home, I did a joyful Tin Man dance in place. Harper circled around me, stuffed squeak toy in mouth, tail wagging. “Attaboy, Harper! We’re back!”
A trainer from the Seeing Eye is coming next week to visit some other graduates in the Chicago area. Eric will stop by to trail Harper and me en route—maybe he’ll have some pointers for the new, taller me.
Doctor’s orders are to continue wearing the clodhoppers until I return to the ortho clinic August 31. The Seeing Eye will send another trainer out if we need more help once I’m back on terra firma, and I am very hopeful that at this next appointment the doc will give me the okay to wear my normal shoes again. And if that happens, trust me, I’ll be more than happy to step down from my six-foot pedestal!
News: Guest Posts
Caleb reunites with his littermates
Once a year Guide Dogs for the Blind hosts their annual “Fun Day” at each campus, an annual recognition event for puppy raising volunteers to thank them for everything they do. It’s the biggest event of the year. The day provides raisers from the various territories with the opportunity to learn about new training techniques, changes in the breeding program, new community placement options and, of course, to meet littermates and other raisers.
Three of Caleb’s seven siblings were attended—Cleveland, Carol and Clinton—all are yellow and being raised in the Portland area. We were able to spend some time chatting with the other raisers and comparing notes on our pups. Turns out, there are definitely some shared traits. All of them have the same “hook” move: When playing, they’ll wrap a front paw around you and hang on. They are all cuddly, love to play and are generally mellow personalities. However, when it comes to appearances they are all over the map. Cleveland is significantly bigger with a wavy long Golden Retriever coat, Carol is very petite and Caleb was commended as the cutest, and I have to say I agree!
It’s hard to say if they recognize each other as sibling since in general they show the same level of enthusiasm for all dogs. But it was fun to see some of his littermates and learn how they have been progressing through their training. To date, all eight are still in program and none have been career changed.
We also had a few visitors this month. My mum spends part of the summer in Bend and along with her comes her Black Labrador, Hobson, who is a community placement from Guide Dogs. Community placements are essentially ambassadors. They are paired with active community members, educators and others who help spread the word about Guide Dogs for the Blind.
My mum lives in a retirement community in Arizona where she and Hobson do outreach work on behalf of Guide Dogs for the Blind. They speak to Veterans organizations, vision-loss support groups and social clubs about the services and options available for the visually impaired. Hobson is a wonderful companion for my mum as well as perfect representative for Guide Dogs. When visiting, he also provides some welcome instruction and mentorship for Caleb. Caleb has learned to respect his elders, a bit, and that just because there is another dog around does not mean we are opening a wrestling camp in our living room!
Add to this mix four of my siblings and their families including kids ranging in ages from 2 to 16 and we had a really different vibe for Caleb to experience. This was again invaluable socialization and training for him, on any given day there were at least five additional people in our house, kid’s toys all over the place, and mealtimes were crazy. With our house as the hub of activity, Caleb got a dose of what I grew up in. Lots of people, food, noise, activity and kids running around, he handled it all very well but needed a few long naps in between.
While summer may be coming to a close, we are preparing for our long awaited vacation to Montana for some fly fishing, hiking and relaxing. Caleb is going with us to the lodge and we are looking forward to giving him even some more new experiences. Until next month, enjoy the rest of the summer!
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Cookie sales fund the project
Girl Scouts in Troop 10470 met officers last year during a safety presentation by the police. The girls were saddened to learn that the canine police dogs did not have their own badges, and they decided to do something about it.
Buying badges costs money, and we all know how Girl Scouts raise money. They sell cookies. It took more than 1,000 boxes to raise enough money to buy badges for the five police dogs, which were presented to them on August 17, 2011. Each badge has the dog’s name on it, rather than an officer ID number, which is what human police officers have on their badges.
It’s telling that the Girl Scouts felt that the dogs, being police officers too, should have their own badges. To them, and to many adults, it just makes sense that dogs as well as people should have badges. They are part of a new generation growing up with the viewpoint that dogs are on equal footing with their human partners, which is why one girl had asked, “Why does your dog not have a badge?”
News: Guest Posts
Facility dogs versus therapy dogs—critical distinction
Editor’s note: On Monday, Rebecca Wallick blogged about what an appeal in New York challenging the use of courtroom dogs might mean to the practice. Today, she explores the difference between facility dogs and therapy dogs, which is essential to the success of courtroom dog programs.
One concern raised by Courthouse Dogs founder Ellen O’Neill-Stephens, which I share, is the use of “therapy” dogs in forensic interviews with victims, or in the courtroom or other legal settings. There is a vast difference in training of facility dogs versus therapy dogs. There is also a vast difference in training between interviewer specialists, investigators and prosecutors, and volunteers wanting to be helpful. The former are prepared by training, experience and disposition to deal with the horrors of the stories they hear; the latter aren’t.
O’Neill-Stephens describes a case where a volunteer and her therapy dog were in the lobby of a child advocacy center when the child walked in and immediately started disclosing to the therapy dog’s handler what had happened to her—right there in the lobby. The volunteer, unprepared for the disclosure, was traumatized and required professional counseling. The child had to disclose her ordeal again, to the interview specialist.
In another case, the volunteer and dog were asked to attend the physical exam of the child rape victim. A privacy screen was placed between the volunteer and the child, with the volunteer holding the leash of her dog who was next the child on the exam table. When the child started to cry, the dog put its paws on the table and licked the child, providing comfort. But the evidence was tainted by dog hair and the exam had to be conducted a second time.
Of course, these volunteers and their therapy dogs are well meaning and only trying to help. But the consequences of mistakes can mean re-traumatizing the victim with another interview or exam, or even an inability to file a case because crucial evidence is tainted. Dogs utilized in legal settings should be facility service dogs specially trained for that work by organizations like Canine Companions for Independence (where Jeeter, Ellie, Stilson and Molly B were all trained) or other such programs that are accredited by Assistance Dogs International. Their handlers should be the prosecutors, interviewer specialists, victim advocates and police specialists who also work in the legal arena. Therapy dogs and their handlers, as wonderful as they are, belong in therapy settings.
News: Guest Posts
Appeal challenges the use of dogs to comfort witnesses
On August 8, 2011, The New York Times ran an article about a criminal trial in June where Rosie, a trained facility service dog, was allowed in the courtroom. The case required that a 15-year-old girl testify about her father raping and impregnating her. Rosie, New York’s first judicially approved courtroom dog, sat at the teen’s feet as she testified.
The next evening, NBC Nightly News closed with a segment highlighting the use of facility service dogs in courtrooms to help victims—especially children—testify during trial. The spot included video of Ellie, one of the dogs I profiled for my article “Dogs in the Courtroom,” which was published in Bark’s May/June 2007 issue. It also included an interview with Ellen O’Neill-Stephens with her courthouse dog Molly B. O’Neill-Stephens’ disabled son’s service dog Jeeter was first used in a courtroom setting here in Washington State in 2003 and got this whole concept rolling. She has gone on, with Celeste Walsen DVM, to create Courthouse Dogs LLC, to promote the careful and thoughtful use of facility service dogs in legal settings—from forensic interviews to the courtroom. To date, ten states are allowing dogs in the courtroom. Countries such as Chile, Australia and Canada have asked Courthouse Dogs for assistance setting up programs.
The NBC News segment was prompted by the uproar Rosie caused, doing her job in that New York courtroom. Much was made of the fact that the defense team was going to appeal, in part because of the use of Rosie. One of the defense attorneys claimed that each time the victim stroked the dog during her testimony the jury would think she was under stress because she was telling the truth.
Well, yeah. Asking a child to recount a horrific event in a courtroom full of strangers, with her abuser staring at her, and defense counsel questioning her, is stressful. Historically, children have been allowed comfort items—blankets, dolls, teddy bears—while testifying. Or a support person—perhaps a relative, or victim advocate—in the observer’s section of the courtroom but within eyesight of the victim, to help calm them. These aids have withstood appeal.
As O’Neill-Stephens points out, “The dogs are often completely out of sight in the witness box, at the victim’s feet. Typically the victim simply holds the leash in their hands, which provides a sense of control for them, or they might bend down occasionally to stroke the dog’s head.” Done correctly, the use of a facility service dog in court to aid the victim would be less visible to a jury than comfort items. And certainly, the dog can’t be accused of trying to sway the jury with body language, or coaching the victim as she testifies, as some support persons have been.
As an attorney, I know that convictions are routinely appealed, on any and every basis possible. It’s one of the hallmarks of our judicial systems, and keeps everyone honest. Rosie simply provides the New York defense team with an additional ground. O’Neill-Stephens isn’t aware of any previous appeal regarding the use of facility service dogs in courtrooms although they have been used in that capacity for several years now. That may be, in part, because appeals can take years to reach full resolution, and the use of dogs in courtrooms in relatively new. Frankly, I welcome the appeals so that the issue can finally be resolved in favor of the use of dogs.
Here in Washington, Mark Roe, Snohomish County Prosecutor, remembers trying a case where he utilized Stilson, the facility dog associated with his office’s victim/witness advocates since 2006 and also profiled in my earlier Bark article. Roe’s case involved an 11-year-old girl testifying against her father, who had sex with her since she was nine. She was reluctant to tell a cop, or an interview specialist; it was gross and embarrassing. But she told Stilson, allowing for charges to be filed.
During pre-trial motions, Roe explained to the judge how Stilson helped the girl talk about her ordeal and sought a ruling allowing Stilson to be at the girl’s feet on the witness stand. Defense counsel objected to Stilson being in the courtroom, arguing that the dog being with the girl as she testified would amount to commenting on the evidence, sending a message to the jury that the judge must believe the girl because he gave her a dog.
As Roe tells it, “Judge Tom Wynne listened to arguments pro and con, and observed Stilson, lying peacefully amid the uproar between the parties. He ruled that Stilson was so unobtrusive that if the State elected, Stilson could be up at the witness stand with the child.” Roe chose to not have Stilson on the stand with the girl, however, because he didn’t want to create a possible appellate issue if the child could get through her testimony without him. Instead, Stilson sat in the back of the courtroom with an advocate, where the girl could see him, and be with him during breaks. “For all the jury knew, the advocate was an observer, and Stilson her dog.” The girl’s father was convicted.
According to Roe, “Service dogs don’t make it possible for us to prosecute child rapists. We have done that for years without animals of any sort. What service dogs do is make it easier on the little kids who have to go in and face the guy who abused them, in front of a room full of strange adults (one dressed kind of like a witch) on a day they don’t get to choose, and talk about icky stuff. Service dogs take something very hard but very important, and they make it easier. They accomplish this without saying a word that can be construed as ‘leading’ or ‘suggesting’ things to the child. They simply provide comfort and something to like about a situation kids don’t like at all.”
O’Neill-Stephens noted that in a recent, very high-profile murder case, the judge initiated a request to use her courthouse dog Molly B. The defendant, charged with rape and murder, was prone to outbursts in the courtroom. “The judge wanted Molly in the courtroom for the entire six weeks of trial. The defense was okay with it,” she said. “After all, courthouse dogs help everyone—jurors, witnesses, courtroom staff, lawyers and defendants—deal with stressful courtroom sessions. Ultimately, prosecutors decided against using Molly B because the case was already packed with possible appellate issues.”
Which is sad. Research shows that just having dogs nearby can calm people and lower their blood pressure. In courtrooms, these dogs could reduce the stress of everyone—judge, jury, clerks, prosecutors and defense counsel, witnesses and observers. Unconditional love for all involved. Where’s the harm?
Williams ended his NBC Nightly News broadcast on August 9, 2011 by saying, “Those are some good dogs.”
I predict that in ten years, this will be a non-issue, and facility dogs will be a regular feature of courthouses across the country.
► Tomorrow in Part II of her follow-up, Rebecca Wallick blogs about the important distinction between facility dogs and therapy dogs in courtroom settings.
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