Canine Comfort In West Michigan Courts

Posted at 6:12 PM, Jun 05, 2013
and last updated 2013-06-05 18:50:46-04

OTTAWA COUNTY, Mich.– A 7-year-old girl waits outside an Ottawa County courtroom as she prepares to testify about being sexually abused. During these anxiety-filled moments, she  finds some comfort  near her feet.

It’s in the form of a lovable black Labrador named Patty.

“The prosecutors in my office have all said I can’t imagine doing a child criminal sexual assault case without this dog,” said Jeanine Wernet, Ionia County victim services coordinator and Patty’s full-time caregiver.

The Ionia County Prosecutor’s Office  has been using the advocate dog since August of 2012 and now her services are on loan in Ottawa County, helping with sexual abuse cases involving children.

“I was hesitant at first to use dogs in the courtroom.  However, every victim that I’ve spoken to has been excited about having a dog present,” explains Judy Mulder, Ottawa County assistant prosecutor.

“When I ran the prelim last week with a child it calmed her, she was happy to have a dog there. Afterwards,  she told me she did rely on the dog a few times for comfort so I was pleasantly surprised at how well it worked having a dog in the courtroom,” she said.

The popular Lab  is part of the Canine Advocacy Program (CAP), a non-profit based out of Novi. The low-cost service,  which started three years ago in the state, is designed to provide advocacy services to child victims using highly trained dogs to help alleviate stress during investigations and court proceedings.

“They are talking about a very traumatic experience,  with the dog they can focus on her and the diversion. I don’t know that I can really explain it except that it is a comfort and a familiarity they otherwise wouldn’t have,” explained Wernet, who says  children who won’t  tell anyone what happened to them will still open up to the dog.

“They’ll lay down next to her and lift up her ear and tell her the whole story and we can hear it,  but they are comfortable,” she said.

Patty is one of four advocate dogs in the Michigan program and the newest addition to the team.

“They (the victims) know it is going to be difficult,  but at least for some time they are going to be spending with this wonderful dog they can love on, they can walk, they can curl up on, talk to, draw pictures and it just relieves their anxiety,” explains CAP Program Director Dan Cojanu.

The dogs have been used in Michigan during preliminary hearings and court proceedings and could soon be part of jury trials.

The service is low cost to the courts and the victim services handler pays for the dog’s care.

Critics of the idea worry  the dog’s presence in the courtroom could bring out sympathy in a jury.

Other attorneys have said it actually helps make the judicial process more effective because the witness is able to open up and be available for cross-examination.

To learn more about the program or to help donate, click here.