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In St. Charles County courts, kids can count on a special friend

By: Brian Flinchpaugh


Sully doesn’t mind if his ears are pulled, if his hair is mussed or if the hugs around his neck are bit tight – it’s all in a day’s work.

Last November, Sully joined the St. Charles County prosecuting attorney’s office. But he isn’t your typical dogged, hard-nosed prosecutor. He’s just a dog. Actually, he’s more like a comforter. A 2-year-old golden retriever, he has an important role – that of “courthouse dog” or “facility dog,” as proponents prefer.

Sully

Trained at a women’s prison, he likes dishing out his own unique brand of affection – a lick to the face or hand, a gentle nuzzle with his wet nose, or maybe just staying quietly close enough to calm victims who find themselves in the criminal justice system, particularly children involved in sexual, emotional or physical abuse.

Sully is one of a growing number of highly trained assistance animals in St. Charles and St. Louis counties. He is more frequently called in to provide assistance to children who face being interviewed for depositions or participating in court proceedings and trials. His job might be likened to someone who can hold hands, although in this case, holding a paw may be more appropriate.

“I think [of him] more as a comfort item because that’s really what he does,” explained Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Rebecca Shaffar, Sully’s boss, who takes him home at the end of each day and cares for him. “Being a dog, he gives some comfort and possibly some security so [victims] can then talk or don’t feel afraid with him there.”

The idea of dogs providing this kind of support is not new. According to a paper published by the American Bar Association, in the 1700s, Society of Friends officials said farm animals may have helped with the rehabilitation of patients at a facility they founded in England for people with mental illnesses. The concept gained traction in the legal system starting in 2003, when Seattle prosecutor Ellen O’Neill-Stephens promoted the use of highly trained assistance dogs to provide comfort to children and adults who were victims of crime. O’Neill-Stephens and veterinarian Celeste Walsen founded the Courthouse Dog Foundation in 2012, which promotes the support dog concept in the U.S. and internationally.

In the local court system, Reka, a 4-year-old chocolate Labrador retriever, is a true pioneer. Since 2015, she has been working at The Child Center in Wentzville, a child advocacy center that works with state and local agencies in a multi-county area, supporting children who are victims of sexual or physical abuse, or who may have witnessed violent crimes.

Reka

True champs

Both Sully and Reka are graduates of CHAMP Assistance Dogs, Inc., a nonprofit organization based in North St. Louis County. CHAMP stands for Canine Helpers Allow More Possibilities and is one of several local not-for-profit organizations training dogs for a variety of tasks. Nola Ewers, director of CHAMP’s assistance dog program, said facility dogs also are used in St. Louis City and St. Louis County courts. Most work with counselors or trained handlers to use their special skills in a more public setting.

Sully is unique. Handled by a staff member, rather than a volunteer, authorities say he may be one of Missouri’s first full-time courthouse dogs. His role, according to Ewers “is to make the kids feel able to tell whatever may have happened.”

“Particularly with children, it can be intimidating to be there and tell their side of the story,” Ewers said. “The dog there gives the child something else to focus on so they can kind of get a little bit of that stress and anxiety out, so they can tell their side of the story to prosecutors and everyone in the courtroom.”

Shaffar said Sully shows up for work every day at the prosecutor’s office with Shaffar, gets dressed in his special vest [identifying him as a facility dog] and collar, and begins his day. He can appear in the courtroom and sit quietly. Often, he comes to an interview room. Typically, he sits on one end of a couch and puts his head on a child’s lap to be petted. The interaction is always supervised by Shaffar, who says Sully also helps the prosecutors.

“It [Sully’s presence] certainly makes the kids easier to talk to,” she said.

That’s also true of Reka, said Amy Robins, supervisor of forensic services at The Child Center and one of Reka’s three handlers. Reka’s primary role is to sit with children during a “forensic interview,” in which staff members have to ask them detailed questions about what may have happened to them.

The interviewers are child-friendly but have to remain neutral and unbiased – they can’t respond in the same way to a child crying as they would outside an interview situation. The interview also is viewed by prosecutors and other staff. Kids over 5 know that and often feel intimidated, Robins said, adding that Reka seems to understand this situation.

“Sometimes she will do funny things to try to get them to laugh,” Robins said. “If she has a kid who is crying a lot, she may try to climb into their lap or try to eat the tissue that they have. It’s really amazing, the sense she has for which kids need her the most.”

Petting Reka can reduce trauma in a lot of ways – research shows it supports an increase of serotonin in the brain so it allows an increase in comfort, Robins said.

“I’m really not a dog person per se, but I knew that Reka would be really great for our agency,” said Robins, who provides home care for Reka. “It is hands-down the best decision our agency has ever made.”

Sully [left] and Reka [center] with a puppy friend

It’s all in the training

Sullys and Rekas are rare.

“Not every dog can be a facility dog, because they obviously have to have the temperament,” Shaffar said. Sully doesn’t scare easily or get upset by loud noises. He also has to like people. Shaffar said Sully tries to visit with as many staff as he can in the morning when he arrives.

For Ewers, the search for “perfect dogs” is ongoing. CHAMP, she said, looks for dogs with “impeccable temperament” who “take everything in stride.” Ewers said several breeders in Columbia, Missouri, provide some of the nonprofits animals that are initially trained and “socialized” by a group of University of Missouri students.

The dogs have to be worked largely by voice command, and the training program involves building a bond with the dog. The idea is getting the dog to want to work for you, Ewers said.

The training is kept light and engaging. As the dogs get older, they are evaluated to see what might be their best role. Dogs that work in a public setting must be curious but confident to the point that nothing fazes them. Promising animals get intense, advanced training from female inmates at the Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Vandalia, Missouri. The training starts when the dog is about 8 weeks old and can take several years. All in, training can cost up to $24,000, according to Ewers.

Finding the right handler to take over the dog is nearly as important as finding the dog itself.

“We’re also looking f0r the handler that’s going to be a good [work] partner for the dog, because there is a lot to learn in how to handle a dog,” Ewers said. “We actually start the visits [to the dog’s future placement] before the dog ever arrives.”

The handler has to show a tremendous amount of consistency in their command of the animal. Some people are good with animals but not good as handlers, Ewers said. Others simply have the knack.

“You don’t know, until the day they show up and say ‘this dog,’ what you’re going to get,” Shaffar said. “They won’t give you a hint [of] what sex, what breed, or anything.” Sully, who arrived in November, had to be broken

Sully, who arrived in November, had to be broken in to a new environment and home. “He’s curious about everything. When you take him someplace new, you have to be aware of that fact, so that I’m on my toes more,” Shaffar said. But so far, so good. She said there have been a few crazy moments when Sully’s gotten rambunctious at home, but never at the office or in court.

Local judges appear to have accepted the dogs in court, though Shaffar said it is possible that defense attorneys could raise objections. Robins said that hasn’t happened so far in court involving child cases. And Ewers said her group is getting more requests for facility dogs.

CHAMP has placed 69 dogs since 1998. Sully arrived after a two-year waitlist period. The Child Center is waiting on a second dog – this one to help with parents, Robins said. A lot of parents going through this crisis need that support, she said. They hope to have another dog in six months.

Robins and Reka

Time for work

The dogs seem to like their work. “[Reka] is by far the happiest employee here on Monday morning,” Robins said. “I have six individuals in my unit. I think every single one of them would say that the best part about coming to work is having Reka greet them at the door, tail wagging, with a toy in her mouth.”

In fact, Reka maintains her own Facebook and Instagram pages – a testament to her popularity.

But how long Sully and Reka can work is a bit of an unknown. Despite their calm yet affectionate demeanor, they are serious working dogs. If it’s tired or doesn’t want to work, the dog will let people know, Ewers said.

Robins said they are careful not to overwork Reka. She’s limited to two interviews a day, though she works most days – sometimes in interviews, sometimes in short petting sessions.

“Reka really has fun and is outgoing and very puppy-like,” Robins said. “However, when you put her vest on, she just knows it’s time to go to work and she just hones into those kids and parents who really need her kind of snuggles.”

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