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Low-tech and High-touch

The easier it is for children to talk to her, Judge Walker said, the more information she can gather to make better decisions. One thing she’s learned being on the bench for 20 years is that it’s futile to wait for more funding to arrive to improve the courts.

“The money is never going to arrive,” she said. “How do we make things better? The pet therapy costs zero money.”

The Pet Therapy in Courts Program was launched in 2007, after Susan Wilson, director of research and data for the Second Circuit, read a newspaper story about a victim advocate with a service dog in Polk County who noticed children bonded with her dog.

Wilson, who has a therapy dog of her own (a white miniature Schnauzer named Lacey) struck up a conversation with Potlock about the article. They were gung-ho to give therapy dogs a try.

First, Wilson asked Chief Judge Charlie Francis, who said, “I thought it was interesting from the start. We already had teddy bear therapy that we use with children who have gone through traumas. I thought it could work, right off the bat, if the dogs were properly trained and properly controlled. I have no problem. I think it’s a wonderful thing.”

Francis said he hasn’t heard any negative comments and the dogs have not yet come inside the courtroom during a trial, but Francis said he thinks that would work, as long as it is done in an unobtrusive way. But he is quick to add the trial judge has control of his or her own courtroom, and it is that judge’s call.

Potlock said her staff attends every first appearance hearing, and they let each victim of a violent crime know about the option of the Pet Therapy in the Courts Program, but so far it has only been used with child victims.

On her desk, she keeps a little booklet of pictures and profiles of the pet therapy teams — such as the 180-pound canine described as “a big goofball.”

Stephanie Perkins, volunteer services program coordinator for ComForT, does her best to match up teams with the right victim/witness. Perkins said she thinks the dogs are especially suited to their new courthouse roles “because they help provide an atmosphere of acceptance and support to the victim. They do not judge, and I feel that is very important to the victims. I certainly only have anecdotal evidence due to the sensitivity of these cases and the victims involved, but I do believe it works.”

State Attorney Willie Meggs admitted when he was first asked about using the dogs: “My first blush was typical of me: ‘What?’” But any skepticism was swept away by positive results in prosecuting cases.

“These are well-trained, well-mannered dogs. What little kid, abused or not abused, doesn’t like a dog? And it apparently is working,” Meggs said. “Anything that helps the child victim that has to go through the trauma of a trial, I’m for it.”

Wilson jumped through a few hoops getting OKs from courthouse facilities management and legal staff. Risk management signed off after learning the program is registered with the national Delta Society, a sanctioning organization for more than 10,000 pet-partner teams around the world, and insurance is provided through them.

Rescued Dog to the Rescue 
Therapy dogs are a completely different breed than service dogs that help the blind get around, sniff out drugs or skin cancer or find buried earthquake survivors. As Chuck Mitchell, a volunteer with ComForT, said: “Ours are there to touch and mess with. That’s what makes it unique. Our program is low-tech and high-touch.”

Mitchell teams up with Rikki, a Golden Retriever mix scooped out of Lake Pontchartrain as a 10-week-old puppy after Hurricane Katrina blew through the New Orleans area. Together, they have done more than 100 pet therapy visits to a variety of settings, but it’s the experiences at courthouses that have brought big guy Mitchell to tears.

He tells the poignant story of a seven-year-old girl who had been brutally sexually abused by a day-care worker when she was four. At first, she was able to tell only a little of what had happened to her mother and in front of a video camera, but then completely shut down. Months and then three years had gone by.

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