Service dogs go to court to help crime victims

Donna Watts, a volunteer with Dogs With Wings, sits with Molly, the first dog she trained.

Donna Watts, a volunteer with Dogs With Wings, sits with Molly, the first dog she trained.

By Danielle Paradis

Dogs provide all kinds of benefits to humans. They can reduce stress, lower blood pressure and even offer security and protection. Now, they can offer assistance to victims of crimes.

Imagine how afraid a child must be taking the stand to testify against an adult. Police and prosecutors, in order to do their job, must comb through the smallest details of a crime, which can force the child to experience the trauma they faced over and over. Even adults faced with the same situation can easily be overwhelmed and emotionally drained. It can be a lot to ask of a victim.

Now, imagine this child or adult having a gentle furry companion by their side as a witness advocate. The dog can rest at their feet, sit outside with them while waiting to testify and even accompany them to the witness stand. These are courtroom dogs, and these four-legged friends are being increasingly used to help victims through the difficult legal process.

Alberta is just beginning to explore ways that man’s best friend can be of assistance to victims of serious crimes. Anyone who has been fortunate enough to grow up around dogs knows what a soothing presence they can be. Dogs offer unconditional love in sad or hurtful times, and they do so regardless of a person’s age, race, religion or social status.

There are several different types of service dogs such as therapy dogs, courtroom dogs, guide dogs, and dogs that assist people with autism. Many of us have seen service dogs at work, but not stopped to give their labour much thought. I assumed the service dogs I saw were mostly employed to assist the visually impaired, until I met Donna Watts.

Donna, with close-cropped hair and a warm voice, wears her affection for dogs openly — down to the paw-shaped pendant that hangs from her neck. I met her on a plane from Seattle to Edmonton. She was just coming back from the International Courthouse Dogs Conference and shared with me her aspirations to put courthouse dogs into service in Edmonton.

The courthouse dogs project began with a sudden inspiration from Ellen O’Nell-Stephens, a King County deputy prosecuting attorney in Seattle. Her son Sean has cerebral palsy and in 2003 the two went to Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) in Santa Rosa, California. There they met the dog that was to become the newest member of their household, a big Golden Retriever/Lab mix named Jeeter.

The dog was very helpful to Sean and Ellen and together they made regular appearances at schools to speak about people with disabilities. Both felt fortunate to have Jetter’s help and wanted to give back to their community. Noticing the affect Jeeter had on people, Ellen decided to bring the dog with her on days when Sean was with a caregiver. She quickly noticed Jeeter’s ability to make people open up.

This story and many others at the conference inspired Donna, who has worked for the RCMP for 30 years, and would love to see dogs regularly used as victim’s advocates in Edmonton. It was a compelling idea.

Donna and I met again over lunch to talk about her volunteer work with dogs at a tiny,  much loved, local diner. At our feet sat Luna, a service dog who is being trained to help people with disabilities. Luna, a beautiful Golden Retriever, was alert and watchful.

I wanted to reach down and scratch her ears, but Donna gently let me know that I can’t pet Luna while she is on duty. Luna was even in uniform, dressed in a blue vest with a black harness draped around her body and across her muzzle.

Matcha is training to be a service dog with Pacific Assistance Dogs Society (PADS).

Matcha is training to be a service dog with Pacific Assistance Dogs Society (PADS).

As a part of her plans for her pending retirement, Donna dreams of combining her love of dogs with her lifelong dedication to the police force. With Luna, Donna was finishing her volunteer work with Dogs With Wings. She hopes to work with the Pacific Assistance Dogs Society (PADS).

“They started out in B.C. and migrated to Alberta about 15 years ago. I hope they come here (to Edmonton),” says Donna. PADS trained Caber, a yellow Lab like Luna, to be the first trauma dog in Canada. Caber works at Delta Police Services where his calm demeanor has helped provide comfort in the aftermath of tragedy.

In Alberta, the Service Dogs Act grants qualified dogs the right of access to public places. It is this legislation that allows for Luna to lie at our feet in the restaurant. While Donna and I sat, curious patrons and the waitress regularly snuck peeks at Luna. We’re not yet used to seeing these dogs everywhere, and even though the act includes fines for discrimination against a service dog team there is a lack of familiarity about the services these dogs provide.

In Alberta, it is early going for integrating therapy dogs and courthouse dogs in the police force. Currently Camrose & District Victim Services has the first specialty-trained dog in Alberta, and only the second one in the country. Her name is Lucy. Lucy is trained to help provide comfort to children, often victims of sexual violence, who are being interviewed by the police or testifying in a courtroom. Lucy is also an ambassador for the Camrose Police Service — she attends school tours and visits students during exam week. During courtroom proceedings Lucy is trained to sit quietly on a mat while court is in session.

In Edmonton, Zebra Child Protection Centre runs the “Very Important Paws” program which uses Labrador Retrievers to help ease the stress of children going through abuse investigations. The VIP dogs are a mother-and-daughter team, Fossey and Wren, who were trained by PADS. The funding for the Zebra VIP program was provided through grants from TD/Canada Trust and a donation from the Edmonton Urban Spirits Rotary Club.

Service dogs don’t come cheap. According to Dogs With Wings, it costs about $40,000 to breed, raise, train and equip a dog with everything it needs to provide assistance. Donna adds that the price can vary “depending on how much time they put in with a dog to train.” Most of the organizations that train service dogs seek donations.

Currently, Donna is keeping her training skills fresh with her own dog, Booker. “I got him because my husband was due to have a kidney transplant and I was hoping to get a dog in case he has to go on dialysis before surgery, so the dog could retrieve things for him,” she says. “I’m hoping to get my new dog Booker to work as a therapy dog but he needs to grow up a bit. He’s only 18 months and he’s still very lively.”

Small furry steps are being taken to make dreams held by volunteers like Donna a reality, and hopefully soon, courthouse dogs and trauma dogs will be a regular sight to behold. After all, we know that the world can be a scary place, but it’s more manageable with a best friend by your side.