Specially trained dog helping children testify in court

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Last year over 1,000 children who witnessed violent crimes, or were abused themselves, had to share their stories with a stranger at the Southern Arizona Children’s Advocacy Center. The center has brought on board Russell, a 2-year-old golden retriever, to help children with this difficult process.

Specially trained courthouse facility dogs have started being implemented in the criminal justice process over the past few years. Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall heard about how dogs can help from Ellen O’Neill-Stephens, the founder of Courthouse Dogs. When O’Neill-Stephens retired from being a prosecutor in 2004 she started the Courthouse Dogs program. She was inspired after seeing how her disabled son’s service dog, Jeeter, helped children who were nervous when she brought him to juvenile court one day. Since starting the program O’Neil has placed dogs in 17 states.

LaWall invited O’Neill-Stephens to come meet with Kathy Rau, executive director of the advocacy center. The decision was made to purchase Russell from Assistace Dogs of the West using seized drug profits. They also hired O’Neill-Stephens and her Courthouse Dogs program to tailor the the program for the needs of Pima County.

Since courthouse dogs are often in offices or courtrooms, their training has to be very precise so that they know exactly where to sit and do not interfere with proceedings. Russell has been taught 80 different cues having to do with navigation, position and obedience. Russell will sit in on most of the interviews done at the Children’s Advocacy Center. Prosecutors will then determine which children will benefit from having Russell with them while they testify.

Rau has spent the last week getting familiar with Russell’s cues. When Russell is not at the courthouse he will be staying with her. “If having a dog is what it takes to help these kids get through what they have to talk about, we really needed to do it,’ Rau said.

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