Support dogs are increasingly being used to provide a soft touch for kids who attend court.
Being a little kid in a big courtroom can be traumatic enough, not to mention whatever occurred to get them there. This is why Victim Services in Alberta are increasingly turning to these specially trained support dogs who want nothing else but to give these kids comfort.
One such dog was in Ponoka recently to support a youth in the provincial court during a trial. Danielle Beeson is a member of the Camrose Victim Services, who brought in Claire, a black labrador retriever that is just finishing up training.
These loving dogs can be with a child from the early stages of an event all the way into a court case. The need is real.
“Unfortunately it’s typically sexual assault or sexual abuse, but it can be also children who have witnessed domestic violence in the home, or assaults,” said Beeson.
What has been happening recently, if there is an opportunity, the dogs will also be there for women who are victims.
The program is quite new. Michelle Hauser, Camrose Victim Services program manager, brought in a special dog six years ago. “Giving a teddy bear or a hug just wasn’t cutting it for some of the files they were getting,” said Beeson.
What happens when a dog sits beside a child? Beeson says it’s at this point that the child doesn’t have to talk to an adult but can speak directly to the dog.
“They don’t have to talk to the judge directly or talk to the Crown or the defense,” she explained. “That dog is there for them to tell the story.”
“They don’t talk back. They just listen.”
Hauser wrote some grants to get a dog and she had full support from Camrose City Police, which has added its badge to the dogs’ vests. There are two dogs (Lucy is the other) in Camrose and they travel all over the province.
These dogs fill an emotional need that is difficult to explain. Beeson said there was one case where Lucy actually went up to the mother of a child in a case because it could sense her emotional need. “They read the emotion of who needs them the most in the room.”
“If we have two dogs in the room they’ll split up,” she said.
Lucy took on 248 cases in 2017 alone, generally travelling to northern Alberta. That number of cases showed a need to get another dog, which is why Claire is now on the roster.
These dogs know when to sit and just be there for a person. Court can often be time consuming, so staff will also bring nail polish so the kids can paint the dog’s toe nails. For male dogs, they bring bow ties or ties.
Brittaney Sande, executive director for Ponoka Victim Services, has been to trial four times where one of the dogs were in attendance. “They’re incredible. I’ll do anything I can to get them for the kids,” said Sande.
“It’s a powerful program for these kids.”
While their vests are on, the dogs are all business, but at home, Beeson says they can let loose and enjoy their host families and enjoy walks and all the other fun stuff dogs do.
There are currently 15 support dogs within the province with a few others in Edmonton and Calgary. “The more (dogs) we can get placed probably the better.”
These dogs are trained at three different schools in Alberta that look for canines that can be trained to care for others. There is quite a bit of training involved, plus the dogs need to be a good fit for the area they are intended to go to.