Rebecca Wallick, a long-time Bark contributing editor, resides with her two dogs in the mountains of central Idaho.
News: Guest Posts
June 28 2012
Whenever you mix dogs, people and the freedom to play in nature, you get something special.
In 2002 I created Maian Meadows Dog Camp in Washington State, an environment for safe, off-leash play for dogs and people who rarely get to experience it. I feel like an alchemist, stirring just the right ingredients to create a weekend full of fresh air, forest and lake, dog-centered activities, comfort food and—most importantly—the shared unconditional love of several happy dogs all together in one place. The end product is often magical.
Over the years, I’ve befriended lots of wonderful people and dogs. All have back stories, some quite extraordinary.
Two years ago, a mother and her early-twenties daughter attended. Observing them, I realized the daughter had some cognitive challenges. I couldn’t put my finger of just what sort. She was bubbly and outgoing, but her social skills were a tad off. She mixed well with the other campers and her little Chihuahua was delightful.
Saturday evening, the mother took me aside. “I don’t know if you noticed, but my daughter has Aspergers,” she said. “This is the first activity we’ve found that has kept her interested and engaged for an entire weekend. Thank you.”
While I get many heartfelt thanks for hosting camp, that one remains the most special.
The magic happened again at last weekend’s session of dog camp.
Anita arrives with her dog Toby, a certified therapy dog. His skills came in handy. After attending camp in 2010, Anita had to skip June 2011 because she was undergoing chemo for cancer. In September 2011 she and Toby spent a few hours in camp, Anita bald and beautiful, but clearly exhausted. Toby stayed close by. This year, Anita—sporting new hair—and Toby spent the entire weekend in camp, hiking both mornings and participating in all the activities. Anita’s cancer is in remission, and at 66, she’s going strong. So is Toby, by her side.
New campers Adrian and Hana bring their two year old Golden Retriever Jasper. Adrian, an Irishman and statistician of about 50, has spent his entire life afraid of dogs. With Hana’s encouragement, they add Jasper to their family. Adrian no longer fears any dogs, and delights in being around all the dogs at camp.
Dogs heal all sorts of hurts
Stick with me for one more back story. It’s a good one.
Two weeks before camp, I receive an email asking if there is still space for one person and one dog. It’s signed “Tracie and Daisy.” I reply that there is. The registration form arrives, with a very unusual first name; Tracie is a nickname. I worry that my assumption that this camper is female—and can share a cabin with another female—is wrong. I Google the full name. All hits refer to the Dean’s List at a nearby college. Intriguing, but I still don’t know if the camper is male or female, or how old. I decide to proceed as if she is female. If a male shows up, well, there is an extra cabin.
Friday afternoon I welcome campers and their dogs as they trickle in from all over—Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and even Alberta. Just before dinner, a camper arrives with a dog meeting Daisy’s description: black lab/hound mix. Daisy bounds from the car and gleefully romps with the other dogs. Tracie gets out and introduces herself. She is a very petite young woman of twenty. She has chin length brown hair, wire-rim glasses and a huge welcoming smile showing charmingly crooked teeth. She’s wearing a daisy print blouse. Daisy’s collar has daisies on it. Already I like Tracie. She’s going to fit right in at dog camp.
And she does. I’ve never seen someone so young possess such confidence and outgoing friendliness among so many strangers, most of whom are much older. Daisy is just like Tracie, young (two years old), full of energy and enthusiasm. Throughout the weekend, Tracie frequently has to coax Daisy out of the lake. Daisy loves to swim. And Tracie loves Daisy. Their bond is strong and touching to observe. I determine to learn Tracie’s back story.
Later, during a meal, I overhear tidbits as Tracie shares her story with other campers at her table. I hear words familiar to me in my work as an attorney advocating children’s best interests in the legal system: foster care; Child Protective Services; aging out of the system. The next day, as Tracie throws the ball into the lake for Daisy to retrieve, I ask her to share her story with me. She does, without any sense of embarrassment or shame—another sign of her amazing maturity.
Tracie’s birth mother has mental health issues. She often chose, and married, violent men. Tracie suffered abuse at the hands of one step-father who broke her shoulder. Her mother kicked him out (because CPS required it), but Tracie discovered that the next man her mother brought home was a registered sex offender. Tracie, only 13, took action, standing up for herself and her younger siblings by telling a counselor. This time her mother chose the sex offender. Tracie was removed from the home and placed into foster care. This separated her from her siblings, whom she’d raised; they were placed elsewhere. Over the next several years, Tracie bounced from foster care to her mother’s and back to foster care, a sad and all too common experience for older kids in the system.
As Tracie neared age 18, the foster family she was with had a pregnant black lab. Pup number four (of fourteen!) had a big head and became stuck; Tracie helped bring that pup into the world. The foster family gave Tracie the puppy to commemorate becoming an adult—aging out of the system—and starting a new life. Tracie finally had a family of her own: Daisy.
Tracie chose the name Daisy because the symbolism associated with the flower is purity, innocence, loyal love, beauty, patience and simplicity.
While still in high school, Tracie accumulated two years of college credit. The week before dog camp, at age 20, she graduated with a four year college degree. She’s now enrolled in graduate school. She wants to become a social worker. She wants to help kids in the foster care system. She wants to get Daisy certified as a therapy dog so that they can work with kids as a team. And as soon as she’s 21, Tracie wants to become a foster parent herself. If she does, then she and Daisy will help heal children scarred by a system that often doesn’t care very much about them. I’m confident that Tracie, with Daisy by her side, will accomplish all her goals.
I had no idea, over a decade ago, that creating and directing a dog camp would provide a space for people to heal what hurts them, or gather strength to meet their next challenge. But I should have. Anything involving playful, free-roaming dogs just has to promote joy and healing.
News: Guest Posts
June 5 2012
I started jogging in 1975. My grandmother told me it was unladylike; my mother was certain it would ruin my knees. Thirty-five years later, I’m still running regularly and my knees are fine. I love it when science finally confirms what I’ve sensed all along, and also proves my mother wrong.
I believe that science about humans can often be extended to our canine companions. If jogging is good for us, it’s probably also good for dogs – with the usual cautions. I have had one or more canine running companion since getting my first Alaskan Malamute in 1985. She lived to be fourteen. My two current Malamutes Maia, 13 and Meadow, 11, are now “retired” from running, but they both ran until they were about nine years old, and still enjoy daily walks and are in excellent health. My current canine running companion is an exuberant four year old rescued Aussie.
A recent study out of Denmark makes a very convincing case that even moderate amounts of regular jogging improve and extend our lives. What’s impressive about this study is that it started in 1976; approximately 20,000 men and women ranging in age from 20 to 93 have been followed since that time, reporting their levels of activity, including jogging, as well as other factors related to cardio health and longevity.
At a 35 year follow-up, there were 10,158 deaths among non-joggers and only 122 among joggers. Jogging reduced the risk of death by 44% for both men and women. Jogging extended life expectancy 6.2 years in men and 5.6 years in women. An investment of one to two and a half hours per week, spread over two or three sessions, provided the most benefit, according to researcher Peter Schnohr, chief cardiologist of the Copenhagen City Heart Study.
Wow! Jog to live longer. So elegantly simple. And you get to enjoy runner’s high as a bonus!
Learning about the benefits of regular jogging from my own experience, I try to apply the same lessons to my dogs’ lives. From Schnohr’s study and others like it, we know that jogging improves our oxygen uptake, improves lipid profiles (raising HDL and lowering triglycerides), lowers blood pressure, improves cardiac function, bone density, immune function, reduces inflammation markers, prevents obesity, and improves psychological function.
Why wouldn’t this also be true for dogs? I’m convinced it is. I once made a guesstimate of the miles my Malamutes ran with me before I started noticing the signs that it was time to retire them to a walking regimen. The number surprised even me: 10,000 miles.* Observing the joy on my dogs’ faces when they run and their overall excellent health throughout their lives is my proof that running is beneficial for dogs. My vet is pleased that both of my Malamutes are lean in their old age, which benefits their joints. It’s a result of a lifetime of exercise. And we all know that “a tired dog is a good dog.” My regular runs with my Aussie mellow him right out.
Some people focus their efforts on making sure their dogs eat an optimal diet. That’s great, but if you forget the exercise component, you’re missing the chance to further extend your canine companion’s life and sense of wellbeing. Good diet alone isn’t enough. Humans and canines are designed to move. If your dog isn’t a good candidate for even an easy jogging routine, at least get her outside walking briskly and romping playfully every day. Regular weight-bearing movement in the key.
What about my mother’s long-ago warning that I’d ruin my knees by jogging? More to the point here, what about concerns that running will cause knee injuries in dogs?
Lauren Cox, MyHealthNewsDaily.com Contributor, asked several experts whether jogging causes arthritis in human knees. “That’s an old wives tale,” says Dr. Lewis Maharam, fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine. “Your parents decide if you're going to have arthritis or not — it's genetic. Jogging, or running, itself will not cause the arthritis.”
Dr. Michelle Wolcott, Associate Professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine adds that if you’ve never had a broken bone or ligament injury that would predispose you to arthritis, then the chances that jogging will cause arthritis in the knee are minimal. “We know that weight-bearing exercise, such as running, helps prevent osteoporosis and osteoarthritis. Repetitive weight bearing and motion are good for the joints, and running essentially does that,” she says. “If you are not predisposed to osteoarthritis, and have healthy knees and are of healthy weight, then running doesn't affect your risk for knee arthritis. That's a huge misconception and one that I fight all the time.”
Again: If it’s true for humans – that jogging doesn’t damage healthy knees—then I bet it’s also true for canines. In fact, I believe that my dogs’ knees are better off running than doing activities like jumping to catch a Frisbee or chasing a ball with short bursts of speed. A lifetime of weight-bearing exercise allows for strong joints late in life.
In sum: What better excuse to get yourself out the door and jogging through the neighborhood than taking your dog on the same journey with you to a longer, healthier life? I have yet to meet a dog who won’t enthusiastically lead you out the door at the start of your jog, no matter the weather or time of day. It’s never too late to start. Just be sure to consult your medical and veterinary caregivers, start easy and build from there. Have fun with it. Motivate yourself by training for a local dog-friendly event, like Seattle’s Furry 5K, a run/walk that encourages bringing your dog. Your dog will thank you. You’ll both live longer and be better able to enjoy those bonus years.
*For skeptics, I calculated that number as follows: 8 years x 25/mls per week average x 50 weeks/year = 10,000 miles, a low estimate based on my own running logs. Many weeks we ran more miles, a few weeks we ran less. I suspect the real number is at least 10-20% higher.
Seattle Furry 5K: http://www.furry5k.com/
News: Guest Posts
May 23 2012
Confession: I’ve been looking for love online—Match.com, eHarmony—off and on for years. With little success. I’ve made several great friends, dated a few men for short periods, but have failed to find a true partner.
I now realize that my three dogs likely have a lot to do with my on-going singleness. The real question is: Did I create this situation subconsciously-on-purpose? Perhaps. Probably. I love my dog-centered lifestyle.
Many articles about dating bemoan single women’s relationships with their dogs, theorizing that we’re replacing men with our canine companions. After all, what man could possibly be as adoring, forgiving, trustworthy and unconditionally loving as our dogs? No issues regarding toilet seats, either.
Most of us diving into the online dating seas have a list of deal-breakers. Mine include smoking and young kids at home. As I scroll through online profiles, I realize that I also often screen out men who have dogs. Why? I want a dog-loving man; indeed, a lack of affinity for dogs is another of my deal-breakers. But because two of my dogs are aging females, one somewhat reactive to other large female dogs, I’m skipping profiles that show a man smiling beside a large breed dog. If a man has a small dog, I keep reading, but warily. If he has more than one dog, I move on because I can’t imagine trying to combine my three dog household with more than one additional small dog. These are men who in all other respects appear to be good prospects. But if I can’t imagine adding their dogs to my current pack, why bother even making contact? So I don’t.
Then I have an aha moment, putting myself in the men’s shoes: Coming upon my profile with photos of me posing beside two huge wolf-like Malamutes and other photos with my Aussie, they must be thinking….no way! Too many dogs! A dog nut! Deal-breaker!
And they’re right. Dogs—and trail running—are my lifestyle. If a man doesn’t like at least one or the other, we won’t be spending much time together. He doesn’t have to be a runner, but he does have to love dogs, my dogs in particular. With three dogs, my ability to travel, even get away for a weekend or an overnight, is limited. Many men in my age group (50-65) are retiring and list travel as their top interest. Talk about a lifestyle disconnect.
Like many of the women profiled in those articles about the hazards of dating women with pets, I’m quite happy with my life and lifestyle. The thought of all the disruption and compromise required to incorporate someone new is frankly exhausting. Finding the right partner can’t be forced. It needs to happen naturally, with the right person—another dog-nut who accepts my dogs and me (although I’ll continue to hope he’s temporarily dog-less when I meet him).
I’ve decided to save my money; my Match.com subscription has expired. Nor will I try a pet-centric dating site like DateMyPet.com. I hope that the less I try to find the dog-loving partner I desire, the more likely it is I’ll bump into him in some random, casual way. It’s all about timing. Meanwhile, I share my space, time and love with my dogs, who happily reciprocate.
News: Guest Posts
Key decision but not a precedent
April 23 2012
We all share this nightmare: somehow, our beloved dog gets out of the house, runs into the street…and is tragically hit by a car. Now imagine that awful scenario being the result of someone else’s negligence. That’s what happened to a Colorado family. Last summer, Robin Lohre’s dog Ruthie was killed after being hit by a car. Ruthie escaped the family’s home while a cleaning service was working in the home and Robin had left to run an errand. To make matters worse, the cleaning service employee knew it happened, found the dog and brought her inside, laid her underneath the dining table, and left—without ever calling Robin or a vet, or even leaving a note.
Robin and her seven-year-old daughter Imogene were devastated by the loss of Ruthie.
Lohre sued Posh Maids, the cleaning service, for negligence and emotional distress. Colorado, like so many other states, considers pets to be property. Usually, when someone negligently damages your property—say, your car—you can sue only for the replacement cost. However, in recent years, attorneys across the country have been making inroads, expanding the animal law specialty and pushing the envelope with regard to how our legal system looks at pets. When someone suffers a loss like the Lohre’s, suits for emotional distress seek to address the true wrong suffered—the loss of the human-canine bond and companionship—even if the state’s statutes don’t specifically provide for those damages.
In Lohre’s case, the defendant never responded to the lawsuit, so a default judgment for the full claim of $65,000 plus interest was entered. While on the surface this is a great financial result for the Lohre and her attorney, it’s too soon to celebrate. First, since the case didn’t go to trial and a judge didn’t render a decision, the case doesn’t provide the sort of legal precedent that others later can use for their own cases. Second, we lawyers have a saying: judgments are easy to get but hard to collect. Given that the defendant was a small business owner who didn’t hire an attorney to respond to the suit, my guess is that she won’t pay, and may even file bankruptcy to avoid payment.
Still, I see the case as a victory for this most basic reason: it publicizes the idea that our pets are more than simple property. They are our invaluable companions, and the law should treat them as such. The case is also a heads up to all businesses that send employees into peoples’ homes to provide a service: be as mindful of the family pet as you would a human child.
Here’s ABC’s full report:video platformvideo managementvideo solutionsvideo player
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
A comforting canine presence provides victims with a safe harbor
April 23 2012
It’s everyone’s nightmare: You’re the victim of a serious crime. Your world collapses—you’re frightened, stunned, physically injured and completely overwhelmed. Police and prosecutors interview you about the smallest details, forcing you to relive the experience over and over. Eventually, you’ll have to face the perpetrator in court, testifying and once again reviving the horror. Emotionally paralyzed, you don’t know if you can do it.
Now imagine the same situation, but this time, a special dog rests at your feet during every interview, sits with you outside the courtroom as you wait to testify—perhaps even goes up to the witness stand with you—and stands beside you at sentencing when you give the court your victim-impact statement. This four-legged victim/witness advocate—accompanied by his human counterpart from the victim advocate’s office—helps you remain calm and reduces what can be a traumatic part of the legal process. You stroke his soft fur, gaze into his warm brown eyes and feel the reassuring weight of his head resting on your foot. He’s there for you, giving you exactly what you need at that moment: strength to get through this part of the nightmare.
This is not a totally speculative scenario. In Washington’s King and Snohomish counties, two innovative prosecuting attorney’s offices have begun using highly trained service dogs to help victims of crime, and the dogs are having a positive impact. Not only do they assist victims, they also boost morale for the prosecutors and victim advocates who deal with the often-horrible consequences of crime on a daily basis.
Upon returning to Seattle and her office, Stephens began thinking creatively, wondering if service dogs might assist in the legal setting. On days that Jeeter could not accompany Sean, Stephens took the dog to work with her. She was the Drug Court prosecutor, and thought Jeeter might help kids with their recovery. She was right—the children quickly adopted Jeeter as their mascot. “One day in my office lobby, a boy, sexually abused by his mother and who [had] sexually abused his sister, glommed onto Jeeter. I didn’t know this at the time, but the prosecutor was offering a deal to get him to testify against his mother, and the boy was backing out. The boy asked to play with Jeeter. I asked him, ‘Would it be easier to talk if Jeeter was with you?’ He said yes, so the plea discussion was rescheduled. At the next meeting, I said, ‘Everyone on the floor!’ so the boy could sit and hug Jeeter. Defense counsel, prosecutor, cop—everyone sat on the floor. It worked. He told them everything that had happened.”
This was an “Aha!” moment for Stephens: The King County prosecutor’s office should have its own facility dog to work with victims. She started with her office’s sexual assault unit. No response. She pushed. Some were receptive, others, not so much. Things stalled. Finally, Stephens arranged for King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng and members of the sexual assault unit to meet Jeeter. “Jeeter convinced them,” Stephens recalls with a laugh.
As Maleng recalls, “When Ellen came up with the concept of using Jeeter with victims, without hesitation I said yes. I had an intuitive feel for what it could do; I understood from my heart what the program was all about, having grown up on a dairy farm with Collies who were an integral part of our family, offering companionship and unconditional love in sad or hurtful times.” Maleng marvels that—decades later—dogs are becoming a part of the justice system. “I center on their healing power within the justice system. There is so much hurt—the victims, families, even members of our office—from exposure to trauma and anxiety. So within this environment, the dogs contribute to justice.”
Eventually, Ulrey began the CCI application process, which starts with a written essay describing the need for a dog. When she was turned down because CCI was concerned that their highly trained dog would be underutilized, Ulrey was ready to give up, but Stephens wouldn’t let her. Together, they attended a CCI dinner in Seattle and performed some magic on a CCI staff member who had once worked in a shelter for victims of domestic violence. Ulrey reapplied and was accepted. In December 2004, she went to CCI’s Santa Rosa facility for training and to be matched with a dog.
Ulrey’s training group consisted of five people and five dogs. The first three days, each participant was asked to work with each dog for a half-day; they were assisted and observed by CCI staff. “I got Brielle—I call her Ellie—on the second day. She was a nightmare! She was stubborn. She wouldn’t listen to me. I felt horrible. I was in tears by the end of the afternoon. At the end of the third day, we were asked to rank in order the dogs we wanted. I wrote: Any dog but Ellie,” Ulrey recalls. The next day, they brought the dogs out, one at a time, and matched them to people. “Ellie was last, and she got me. By the end of that day, I’d fallen in love with her. She’s a sturdy character, where the others were more eager to please. She’s calm and self-possessed, which is perfect for the criminal justice system.”
Ellie was placed into service immediately, and was an instant hit. “She’s a real morale booster for everyone in the office,” says Ulrey. “It’s a high-stress environment, with gut-wrenching trials involving victims of violence, sexually abused children, aggressive defense counsel, lives at stake. Even the security guards at the entrance to the courthouse enjoy her.” Ellie is believed to be the first service dog in the nation to be officially placed in a prosecuting attorney’s office.
Ellie works three days a week. Currently, Ulrey is in charge of the King County prosecutor’s juvenile court unit, where Ellie visits kids in detention or in court. Both Ellie and Jeeter also help with victim interviews in the main office. When she’s not working, Ellie’s life is much like that of any well-loved and pampered dog: one day a week in doggy day care, lots of off-leash park time, runs and walks with Ulrey. Ulrey can’t think of any negative aspects to Ellie’s training, demeanor or work (with the exception of an occasional embarrassing episode of diarrhea at the courthouse). She never growls, is completely reliable with people and other dogs, and is a wonderful companion.
Stephens’ desire to see victims helped by these dogs didn’t end with the success of Ulrey and Ellie. One of Stephens’ friends happens to be Janis Ellis, prosecuting attorney for Snohomish County, King County’s northern neighbor. Stephens planted the bug, and before long, Heidi Potter, victims’ advocate in the Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, applied to CCI. In November 2006, Stilson, a handsome black Lab, became the second service dog to be placed in such a setting.
CCI continues to monitor the program. According to Jeanine Konopelski, CCI’s National public relations manager, “This is a new venture for CCI and we are still evaluating to see if the specialized training and skills put into CCI facility dogs are a necessity for this type of work. Certainly, the work has proved to be valuable—there’s no question about that.”
Helping Victims Cope
The successful prosecution of a criminal case often depends on the ability of a victim to report and then testify regarding the details. With children—especially traumatized children—this can be extremely difficult. In just the few months that Stilson has been assisting victims in Snohomish County, Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Tobin Darrow has seen a significant positive impact. “I think Stilson [provides] a wonderful, warm reception. Initial victim interviews are often when a decision is made whether [or not] to start a case. We close a lot of cases when victims—children especially—can’t or won’t talk. Stilson allows the victim to start talking. It takes children time to develop trust with a prosecuting attorney, so Stilson is very helpful there. Or when kids have to wait—it’s very hard on them, waiting for their turn to testify. Stilson is calming and reassuring.”
Mark Roe, deputy prosecuting attorney in Snohomish County’s Special Assault Unit, agrees. In a recent case, an 11-year-old girl had to testify against her father, who had sexually abused her. Stilson comforted her while she waited in the hallway, and was in the back of the courtroom as visual reassurance as she testified. Mark, who admits that he wasn’t a proponent of the service-dog idea in the beginning, now concedes that there are clear benefits, especially with children. He said that Stilson’s calm and quiet demeanor is what convinced the judge in this particular trial to allow him inside the courtroom. “It’s funny that Stilson’s being profiled in a magazine called Bark, because I’ve never heard him bark!” Mark added with a laugh.
Heidi Potter recalls a case in which Stilson accompanied her and Tobin to Harborview Medical Center’s trauma unit to interview a shooting victim, who had been left paralyzed by his injuries. The man had been bound in duct tape, beaten with a baseball bat, shot in the neck and left for dead. When Stilson entered the hospital room, the man was delighted, and spent the next 10 minutes petting him from his bed. When Tobin asked him about being shot, the man began to talk, recalling how he had thought he was going to die; then, crying, he abruptly stopped speaking. Stilson, who had been lying on the floor, stood and put his head on the man’s lap and stayed there until the man recovered enough to continue. Stilson then lay back down on the floor beside the bed. “I didn’t give Stilson any command. He just did it,” said Heidi.
Even if a victim doesn’t have to testify at trial because the defendant pleads guilty, they may still have to face the defendant at sentencing. Preparing for—and anticipating—the sentencing can be highly stressful. Jessica Haight, 24, is a rape victim who spoke at the sentencing of her abuser in a recent Snohomish County case. “I thought I was going to be a strong chick at sentencing,” she said, “but I was fixated on the guy. I started crying. I didn’t understand why the victim advocate asked if I wanted Stilson in the courtroom with me. But they brought him in and he laid his head on my foot. I noticed I was playing with his ears. I’m pretty sure I rubbed a bald spot on his ear!”
As Jessica spoke by phone from the victim advocate’s office for this interview, Stilson was lying on her foot. Jessica had “a million and one dogs” growing up, and has two now. Still, “I never would have thought of a therapy dog helping me. I saw guide dogs for the blind. But, me? I enjoyed [having] him in the courtroom. It was an extremely positive experience. It changed how I think about dogs, about therapy dogs. It should be a victim’s right to have a therapy dog in the courtroom.”
That thought is echoed by every prosecutor, victim/witness advocate, victim and legal system player who has seen these amazing dogs in action. Their use in prosecutor’s offices—and particularly in courtrooms—is still in its infancy, yet the benefits are clear and the trend is growing. We can all hope that someday soon, service dogs in this setting will be the comforting norm.
News: Guest Posts
Memories of cross-species games
April 10 2012
Butch was my seal. Or so I fantasized, and bragged to my grade school friends. His origins, age—even his true sex and name—were a mystery. But he was real. He wore a faded collar that had become painfully tight, creating a ring of raw red flesh, like a gruesome necklace he couldn’t unclasp. My own, childishly romantic theory was that he had escaped from a traveling circus. It was the 1960s, and his adopted home was near our dock, in Lake Sammamish, east of Seattle. Oddly, Butch’s presence felt normal for us.
Butch was beautiful, plump yet sleek, his dark form gliding effortlessly and phantom-like just under the lake’s surface. His skin had spots like silver dollars, and his whiskered muzzle reminded me of a dog’s. I would watch, transfixed and jealous: his head gently breaking the surface, nostrils exploding with exhaled breath, dark round eyes scanning my world before silently slipping back to his own. To be so weightless and graceful! Heavy and ungainly on land, he was elegant and agile in his watery element.
Dogs were as crucial to Butch’s wellbeing as the lake fish on which he dined. Dogs were his playmates. His favorites were Spot and Tar, large mixed-breeds with simple names that aptly described their appearance—one shaggy white with occasional black spots, the other all black. They lived nearby.
In my mind I still clearly see them playing: The dogs pace back and forth on our dock, signaling and waiting. Spying them, Butch stealthily swims under the dock, under them, setting up his moment. Spot and Tar crouch with tense anticipation. Then, with an explosion of speed, Butch breaks the surface, just inches below them, surprising and titillating the dogs into paroxysms of spinning and barking, just beyond the reach of their mouths, before he slips back under.
Spot and Tar maintain a frenzied focus, leaning perilously over the edge of the dock, tails wagging furiously in circles for balance while barking excitedly as Butch teases from below, literally brushing their noses with his, diving back down for several seconds to increase the tension, then breaching like a Sea World performer, slapping his tail fins against the surface with a resounding whop that drenches the dogs and the dock with the splash, leaving us all…breathless. Over and over, this sequence, with little variation, for as long as thirty minutes per session.
They played regularly over the years, to the obvious delight of all involved, especially me. It was almost as though they knew when it was playtime, because the dogs were rarely stood up. I would watch with intent stillness from a distance, for as soon as a human approached, the show ended with Butch swimming silently away.
Rarely, a dog would fall off the dock and into the water. Butch would gently grab them by a hind leg, briefly pulling them under before releasing them to swim to shore. Butch never hurt a dog. I think he just wanted them to swim with him, be like him, learn to play like a seal in the water. Butch surely was lonely, the only seal in the lake.
I felt a kinship with Butch. We both chose dogs as our favored and most trusted playmates—out of necessity for Butch, simple affinity for me. I never tired of watching them play. Butch’s trust of Spot and Tar grew to the point that he would beach himself while playing—exposing an almost lover-like vulnerability to them. He chose well, because while they’d bark from inches away, they never harmed him. They played with him in ways they all agreed upon.
I’m grateful Butch and the dogs allowed me into their unique and transcendent world of play. They taught me to ignore assumptions and overcome bias in interactions with animals and with people. I learned that play is the common language across species and across cultures. I continue to marvel at scenes of different animal species playing with each other, finding their common ground, communicating their playfulness and lack of aggression.
We humans can learn so much from dogs and all of the animals with whom we share this planet.
Wellness: Health Care
Canine vertigo is treatable but scary to witness
February 5 2012
I jolt awake in the middle of the night to the sound of one of my three dogs throwing up. My first thought is, glad the floors are concrete and easy to clean. The moon provides enough light for me to make my way to the kitchen, where I see Meadow, my 10-year-old Alaskan Malamute, standing with her head slightly lowered, a small pool of yellow vomit on the floor in front of her. Her front legs are splayed wide.
“Oh, Meadow girl, I’m sorry you’re sick …” I murmur as I approach. Before I can reach her, she stumbles and falls hard to the floor, then struggles to stand up. Stumbling like a drunk, she slams to the floor again. What the hell’s going on?
Meadow, who weighs more than 90 pounds, continues trying to stand. I hold onto her collar, using my other hand to steady her. When she falls, she crashes into my legs with all her weight, almost taking me with her. Not wanting to hear that heart-wrenching thud again, I use my body to prevent her from standing. She moves awkwardly, head swaying, fighting my downward pressure.
She finally stops struggling, but is clearly distressed. Her front legs are spread out in front of her, her chest is barely on the floor and all her weight is on her elbows. One of her hind legs is pinned under her hips, the other one extended out to the side. She pants fast and heavily. She can’t possibly be comfortable, but hasn’t let out any cries of pain and resists my attempts to rearrange her legs.
I turn on an overhead light, then lift her face toward mine. I’m confronted with one of the most frightening sights I’ve ever encountered: Meadow’s eyes are darting rapidly from side to side, as though every neuron in her brain is on fire. Almost crying in fear and frustration, I’m completely stymied.
I’m also alone in a house without cell phone reception. Just me and my dogs. The nearest ER vet clinic is three hours away, but I can’t get Meadow into the car without help. “Meadow, look at me.” I sense that she’s trying to focus, that she hears me, but she can’t make her eyes stop moving. “Meadow, you cannot leave me, not now, not here,” I say to her, trying to quell my own fear that she’s dying and there’s nothing I can do prevent it. I have to do something.
Telling Meadow to stay, I quickly dress and drive the quarter-mile to my closest neighbor’s house. Amazingly, despite the hour, they get their vet on the phone. After hearing the pertinent details, the vet makes an instant diagnosis: “She’s having a seizure. It might be the only one she ever has, or she might have more. She may have brain damage, or she may not.” Brain damage? Not good, although at least I can stop worrying that she’ll die tonight. But the eye thing, her inability to stand; it was going on a good 15 minutes before I left to come here, I argue mentally, thinking a seizure should be a quick thing, like the one I’d witnessed in a friend’s dog with epilepsy. “Seizures can last anywhere from a minute to a couple of hours,” the vet informs me, as if reading my mind. “Should I bring her to you tonight?” I ask. “No,” he replies, “there’s nothing to be done. Just watch her so she doesn’t fall down and hurt herself.”
When I get home, Meadow hasn’t moved, and is still exhibiting the same symptoms. I make a bed next to her on the floor and watch, and wait. As the night wears on, Meadow’s eyes finally quit darting, and eventually—around 5 am—she puts her head on the floor and sleeps on her side. I lay with her, stroking her fur, still trying to figure out what’s happening. It just doesn’t fit my idea of a seizure. Then suddenly, I remember: three years earlier, I’d had a sudden case of extreme dizziness, and my own eyes had danced uncontrollably, just like Meadow’s. I had awoken one morning to a world spinning out of control, unable to stand without falling or slamming into walls. Even rolling over in bed made the world heave and lurch. An ER doctor diagnosed vertigo, likely the result of a severe head cold that had affected my inner ear. A drug resolved my symptoms within 20 minutes, although I had to keep taking it for a week.
Can dogs get vertigo? I wonder as I lay there, stroking Meadow’s body. As it turns out, the answer is yes. In dogs, it’s called vestibular disease. Just about any creature with ears and a brain stem can suffer from vestibular disorders.
Vertigo (from the Latin vert(ere) = whirling or turning around) is a type of dizziness, a sense of motion when one is stationary, due to a dysfunction of the vestibular system in the inner ear. It is often associated with nausea and difficulty standing or walking.
“Vertigo is a human description of a feeling; dogs can’t tell us what they’re feeling, so vestibular disease is the term used,” says Beverly Sturges, DVM, associate professor of clinical neurology/neurosurgery at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.
According to Dr. Sturges, the most frequent cases are referred to as idiopathic or “old dog” vestibular disease because it’s most often seen in older dogs and there’s no obvious cause. “It’s benign; we still have no real understanding why it occurs,” she says. “It’s self-limiting, [requiring] no treatment except supportive care and comforting the dog,” she adds. The second most common cause is infection—especially Rocky Mountain spotted fever—or inflammation.
Dr. Sturges describes two broad categories of vestibular disease: outside the brain, and inside. “When outside the brain, it involves the middle or inner ear and is referred to as peripheral vestibular disease. This type is more treatable, with a better prognosis,” she says, and includes the old-dog syndrome. “Inside the brain means it involves the brain stem and is referred to as central vestibular disease. In small breeds—Maltese, Yorkies, Pugs, Poms—it’s usually caused by a non-infectious inflammation of the brain stem, often referred to as inflammatory brain disease. It occurs mostly in younger dogs [less than] two years of age. In larger breeds, central vestibular disease is usually caused by brain tumors [putting] pressure on the brain stem. Or, sometimes, trauma to the head.” Symptoms of central vestibular disease may be more subtle, with gradual onset.
That frightening eye-darting I saw in Meadow? It’s called nystagmus, a rapid, involuntary eye movement, side to side or, less frequently, up and down. “Nystagmus is not seen in all cases, but [it] is common,” says Dr. Sturges. “It lessens as the dog gets used to the sensation. Nystagmus can be profound in old-dog vestibular disease; a few days, or perhaps one to two weeks later, it’s almost always gone. It’s a reliable symptom: if there’s nystagmus, it’s vestibular disease and not usually a seizure. But you can see a drunken gait—ataxia—and other symptoms without nystagmus and it could still be vestibular disease.”
Diagnosis is based on a description of symptoms, or better yet, actual observation of symptoms. When appropriate, a vet will do a CT scan or an MRI to see if there are tumors or brain swelling. The type of nystagmus observed (horizontal versus vertical) and the direction of the dog’s head tilt (another common symptom) can help a neurologist differentiate between peripheral and central vestibular disease. Other issues involving the inner ear, or ear infection, will be ruled out if symptoms persist.
Treating central vestibular disease in dogs depends on the type and cause. “We’re pretty good now at removing tumors from the brain stem,” says Dr. Sturges. “If there’s inflammation and fluid, that can be drained surgically if necessary. We can prescribe antibiotics or an antifungal. When a vascular cause is suspected—a temporary or permanent lack of blood supply—vestibular issues usually get better on their own,” she says. “Toxins are another possibility. Metronidazole [Flagyl] and a few other medicines can cause toxicity, including vestibular disease; taking the dog off the drug and substituting another can resolve it.”
A sudden onset of acute symptoms and an absence of other physical findings usually mean peripheral vestibular disease. You and your vet may elect to wait a few days to see if improvement occurs before doing extensive diagnostics. After some online research, this was the choice I made for Meadow. Some vets will prescribe corticosteroids to reduce swelling and antibiotics just in case the cause is inside the brain. Ultimately, the final diagnosis of old-dog vestibular disease is made by the self-limiting nature of the symptoms. According to Dr. Sturges, 5 to 10 percent of dogs who experience this problem may have additional episodes.
Unfortunately, like Meadow, many dogs with vestibular disease are initially misdiagnosed as having seizures. In some instances, unable to afford expensive diagnostics or consult a neurologist, the distressed owners put the dog down, fearing he or she has suffered brain damage and won’t recover, or will suffer repeated seizures in the future. “That’s sad,” says Dr. Sturges. “There’s no reason to put them down. We don’t often see brain damage in dogs. A seriously long seizure could cause damage, but don’t jump to euthanize, even in cases of seizure,” she emphasizes.
Granted, sudden onset of vestibular disease can look like a seizure; the two are often hard to distinguish. “A neurologist could maybe tell the difference,” says Dr. Sturges. “An EEG to measure brain electricity and some other tests could help differentiate. But actually seeing the episode is the best way to diagnose. A video—everyone has cameras and video-cams these days—would be very helpful.”
For those who have never experienced vertigo, let me assure you: it’s sudden, overwhelming and incredibly frightening. You don’t know what’s happening, or why, and your brain seems disconnected from your body. Dogs must experience similar fear. And it can be dangerous, depending on when and where it occurs. Both Meadow and I were lucky; we were safely at home and our falls didn’t cause injury. Growing up in a family of aviators, I remember hearing whispered talk among pilots about vertigo, how deadly it can be during flight; it was the one thing they seemed to fear. Then, I couldn’t understand how simply being dizzy could cause a pilot to lose control of an airplane. Now I do. In fact, vertigo is thought to be the most likely reason the private airplane piloted by John F. Kennedy, Jr., and carrying his wife and sister-in-law crashed into the ocean off Martha’s Vineyard in 1999, killing all three. With vertigo, you literally don’t know up from down. Remember white-knuckle rides on that spinning playground equipment? When you tried to get off, you’d stumble and fall to the ground, head still whirling. That’s vertigo light. The real thing is more intense, longer lasting and much scarier.
Meadow and I eventually fall asleep. Around 7 am, I’m awakened by movement. I open my eyes to see Meadow sitting up. “Meadow! Good girl!” I say excitedly. This is progress; this is huge. “Do you want to go outside?” Before I finish the sentence, Meadow is leaning forward to get her hind legs underneath her. Helping her up, I usher her unsteadily toward the door. Out in the yard, she immediately pees and poops. I’ve never before been so excited about normal bodily functions. We head back into the house, where she goes straight to her normal sleeping spot beside my bed. Her gait is wobbly, but she’s moving under her own power. As she settles down, we both heave a huge sigh of relief.
Within a few days, Meadow’s gait is back to normal. She doesn’t have the lingering head tilt common with vestibular disease, but displayed every other symptom. Follow-up blood work discloses that she’s hypothyroid, a possible cause of vestibular disease.
After the dust settled, I shared my experience with friends. Many had similar stories involving taking their dog to a veterinary emergency clinic. One - a vet - has seen several cases in her clinic. Sharing our stories can help prepare us in the event our dogs – especially our old dogs – suffer a sudden episode, making it less scary. Seek medical treatment when appropriate, but if a diagnosis doesn’t ring true, trust your own observations and get another opinion. You know your dog better than anyone.
An online search of “vestibular disease in dogs” and “nystagmus” brings up YouTube videos of dogs showing classic symptoms such as head tilt, drunken gait (ataxia) and nystagmus. The videos are hard to watch, but being aware of the symptoms of vestibular disease could save you a night of fear and stress, or help you notice warning signs of central vestibular disease, allowing early intervention and an increased likelihood of a good outcome for your dog.
Dog's Life: Humane
Travel with a purpose
October 13 2011
The stout, elderly woman — think babushka — arrives at the makeshift clinic with her two aging dogs. The dogs are in good health, but she wants them checked out by the American vets anyway. Later, she returns, pushing an old wooden cart laden with kittens to be spayed and neutered. The woman has decided that she trusts these Americans, and they happily oblige. It is, after all, why they’re here in Sărata- Monteoru, Romania.
Among the veterinarians participating in this clinic, which was organized by World Vets (see sidebar), is Stacy Steele from Ocean Shores, Wash. Like most teams put together by World Vets, her group comes from across the U.S. and consists of three other veterinarians, five vet techs, one vet student and three unskilled volunteers with a strong desire to help any way they can. They’ve each paid a fee and their own airfare to come to this remote town. They will stay a week, spending four of those days in clinics doing multiple surgeries and providing needed care in an area where such care is considered extraordinary.
Companion animals don’t have an easy life in rural Romania. “For the last 40 years, dogs and cats have been dumped in the streets, left to breed,” says Dr. Steele. “There are hundreds running loose. Sometimes the army rounds them up to be spayed or neutered. Then they go to a shelter, but not to be adopted out. If people can afford a dog, they buy purebreds,” she says.
At their clinic, the team meets Dr. Dan, a Romanian vet eager to learn how to perform spay/neuter surgeries. Dr. Steele discovers that Romanian vets don’t receive small-animal or surgical experience in their training; their information comes solely from books and is focused on large farm animals. Luckily, Dr. Dan has relatives with small pets and was also able to get some surgical experience at a clinic. “He loves dogs and cats, and is eager to learn how to spay and neuter,” says Dr. Steele. “He traveled hours from his home to spend three days in surgery with us. Dr. Dan will take the skills he learned back to his own town. It’s so gratifying to be able to help a local vet carry on this work.”
The locals are initially wary of the Americans, perhaps a remnant of the mindset fostered under former Communist rule. Eventually, though, more people and their pets arrive at the clinic. The team receives gifts of baked goods and fruit, even tuică and pálinka (homemade hooch). “Just sniffing it burned the hair in my nostrils!” says Dr. Steele.
When a female dog experiences complications, Dr. Steele decides to reopen the surgical site. Afterward, the dog is weak, and Dr. Steele is concerned she won’t survive the cold night. “Owners leave their dogs outside at night in Romania; we’d see them in cardboard boxes on the front stoops,” she says. “When we release dogs to their owners and suggest they keep them warm and inside overnight … you’d think we’d just asked them to let a pig in their bed, or a cow in their kitchen! [In this case,] we got permission from the owner to keep the dog overnight, and we snuck her into our hotel room.” The next day, she was fine. Creative thinking and flexibility are critical tools on these trips.
According to participants, part of the challenge — and fun — of trips with World Vets is stepping outside professional and personal comfort zones and being immersed in a new culture.
Dr. Steele had her first World Vets experience in January 2009, when she went to Loreto, Mexico. In some ways, it was the natural culmination of two years of personal change and growth. In 2006, she was married and working as a vet associate in a local clinic in Seabeck, Wash. The clinic’s owner decided to sell. “It was a big practice. I enjoyed working there, but did not feel it was managed well,” she says. “I had been there nine years. I could pour in lots of capital and effort to turn it around, or go elsewhere. Two weeks later, I saw an ad for a vet practice in ‘a coastal resort town.’ I love the ocean. I decided the practice was mine. My marriage was on the rocks, my job was in limbo and I thought, I can go live at the beach!”
The marriage was amicably dissolved, assets were sold and split, and Dr. Steele took over that ocean-side practice in August 2007. One big dream realized. But owning her own practice meant she might have to set aside her other dream of traveling. Or would she? In a happy twist of fate, she saw an article about adventure travel, with a sidebar on World Vets. “I’d always been interested in Doctors Without Borders. Intrigued after visiting the World Vets website, I signed up for Loreto,” she says.
Dr. Steele encourages her staff members to go with her. She pays her own way and helps sponsor fundraisers to defray the cost of her staff ’s travel expenses. That year, they had a community dinner with a silent auction of items donated by local merchants. Calendars are another fundraising favorite. For a $5 donation, clients submit a photo of their pet, and people donate $1 per vote to select the 12 “calendar girls” (and boys). The pet with the most votes gets the cover and one month’s page, and the balance of the calendar features the eleven other top vote getters. The cover dog raised $250 in votes in the calendar’s first year, and the entire project generated close to $2,000, remarkable considering that Ocean Shores is a small town of about 4,000 people. Funds raised in these and other creative ways help Dr. Steele’s staff participate in World Vets, and a portion is also donated to animalwelfare organizations like Progressive Animal Welfare Society and Old Dog Haven.
Michelle Smith, Dr. Steele’s lead assistant at the Ocean Shores clinic, had never traveled out of the U.S. before she went to Loreto. “The Loreto trip was totally a life dream come true,” she says. “It allowed me to combine my passions for animals and seeing the world. It’s great to see another culture, how they are with their animals, while bringing them veterinary care and education. I learned so much about injections and intubation; I now use those skills in the free spay/neuter clinics we provide four times a year in our own town.”
Michelle fondly remembers the gifts of food they received from the townspeople. “It was the best: homemade cheeses, enchiladas, tacos. The people are so grateful, and show it with food and invitations to their homes. Great food, great people!” Michelle is looking forward to participating in a World Vets clinic in Peru later this year. (World Vets programs in Loreto have been so successful that they no longer include that town on their roster.)
Like other “voluntourism” opportunities, World Vets requires all participants to pay their way. “There’s a set fee for each trip, anywhere from $1,000 to $1,400, depending on location,” explains Dr. Steele. Every participant except the trip leader pays the same amount, plus their own airfare. World Vets chooses the site and handles incountry logistics; almost everything is provided — lodging, transfers, some or all meals, as well as vet supplies like anesthetics, gloves, antibiotics and sutures. “We also seek donations for supplies,” she says. “Getting supplies into a country can be a challenge. In Nicaragua, some of our luggage was ‘lost’; when it was returned to us, the antibiotics were missing. It takes a king’s ransom to buy a small bottle of injectable antibiotic there, so most likely it was stolen to be sold on the black market.” But despite the costs and challenges, the experience is positive. “World Vets is very good about providing safe, nice places to stay and a couple of days off to see the locale,” she adds.
Dr. Steele has brought clients along on trips to Nicaragua and Romania; one client has gone on to do additional trips with World Vets on her own. Other vets have done the same. “It’s addicting,” she says; in March, she went to Ecuador, her fourth World Vets trip. She delights in sharing her adventures by giving slideshow presentations for the folks back home.
Dr. Steele has a special and lasting reminder of her first World Vets experience: Oreja (“ear” in Spanish), a Mexican mutt she rescued. The sturdy little dog was one of many rounded up from the streets of Loreto and brought to the clinic. “I took one look at her and said, ‘She goes home with me!’” recalls Dr. Steele. Alaska Airlines generously agreed to fly Oreja and six other rescued dogs back to the U.S. for free. Oreja joined Dr. Steele’s five other dogs for a happy and healthy life beside the ocean. Dr. Steele swears she won’t be bringing her pack any more rescues from World Vets trips. Time will tell.
News: Guest Posts
Facility dogs versus therapy dogs—critical distinction
August 17 2011
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
August 15 2011
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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