Monday | April 27, 2015
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Big Isle may get courthouse canine

Man’s best friend has faithfully served humankind, it seems, forever — herding sheep, protecting households, hunting, assisting police and providing guidance as well as companionship to the blind or otherwise disabled.

Within perhaps six months, County Prosecutor Mitch Roth plans on having a courthouse canine in his Hilo office, courtesy of two organizations — Courthouse Dogs Foundation and Assistance Dogs of Hawaii. Roth said the dog, which will be provided to the county free of charge, will be “primarily working with children who are victims of crime, and other victims, as well.”

“It’s not gonna happen right away,” he said. “Part of bringing in a courthouse dog is getting our staff trained and getting the community trained, the judges trained. Initially, what we think will happen is the dogs will be at our office working with victims of crime, possibly at the (Children’s Justice Center). Then, as we get to using the dogs and the dogs get used to being here, possibly branching out to the courthouse.

“We’re doing training not just for prosecutors, but for other attorneys in the county because as a courthouse dog … is not just for the prosecutors. If other attorneys want to use them, we will be making them available to other attorneys, as well.”

The courthouse dog that will one day work in Roth’s office has not yet been selected, but is in training now by Assistance Dogs of Hawaii in Makawao, Maui. Two dogs trained by that organization wore their assistance vests yesterday in a conference room demonstration at the prosecutor’s office. They are Pono, a 6-year-old female black Labrador retriever that works in the Honolulu City Prosecutor’s Office, and Akamai, aka “Aka,” a young male Labrador-golden retriever mix that will soon be an assistance dog for a combat-wounded former Navy Seal.

Mostly, they lay on the floor appearing calm and almost motionless.

“This is what the dogs do at work all day, so many people ask us, ‘Are your dogs depressed?’” said Celeste Walsen, a veterinarian and partner in Courthouse Dogs Foundation with retired Seattle prosecutor Ellen O’Neill-Stephens. “People ask if we’ve had our dogs medicated and people think we treat them very harshly to get them to act like this. Of course, that’s not true. They’re very much coddled pets when they’re not at work.”

O’Neill-Stephens, who founded Courthouse Dogs in 2003, said the calm temperament displayed by Pono and Aka is “mostly genetic.”

“The people who train and breed these dogs are looking for this steady temperament. And a lot of it is training,” she said. “These dogs help in the investigation of crime, during interviews helping the police and the prosecutors get prepared for trial.”

Labrador and golden retrievers and their mixes possess the best temperament for courthouse work, as those breeds have demonstrated success as assistance, guide and hospital facility dogs.

“We start with the genetics, and start with dogs that have been bred to be working dogs, sometimes for 20 or 30 generations. Most of our dogs come from guide dog schools in Australia or New Zealand, sometimes from England. Because we can import them from those countries without the quarantine restriction,” said Mo Maurer, who founded Assistance Dogs of Hawaii with husband Will. “Most important is to get dogs that pass all the health screening and temperament screening that’s required.”

She said the dogs are taught between 50 and 100 different commands and their training can take 18 months to two years.

“It may not seem like they have to do as many skills as a guide dog or a service dog, but from my point of view, it’s the hardest placement because you have to have such a specific temperament for this type of work,” Maurer said. “We don’t want the dog clawing or reacting to something, such as somebody on the witness stand who’s emotional. And if the dog jumps on their lap and comforts them, that could end up in a mistrial.”

Three small children of Prosecutor’s Office staffers came into the room toward the end and played with the dogs, which seemed to enjoy the interaction as much as the keiki. The dogs, both much larger than the children, showed a playful but gentle side.

Walsen said there are 60 courthouse dogs working in 23 states and added being with a calm dog “lowers your blood pressure” and is a great service for victims and witnesses who have been through or seen a traumatic event.

“Touching a dog when you have to talk about something really awful helps you keep talking. It makes you feel calmer,” she said.

O’Neill-Stephens said she got the idea for Courthouse Dogs Foundation after bringing Jeeter, a service dog for her disabled adult son, Sean, into juvenile drug court in Seattle when she was a prosecutor there. She added there is some controversy, however, as some defense attorneys think jurors can be swayed in a witness’ favor by seeing a dog in the witness box.

“In one extreme case that we had in a county north of us, the judge said, ‘OK, the dog can be there, but I don’t want the jury to see the dog,’” she said. “That dog was in the witness box for about two-and-a-half hours during direct and cross examination. And this was a veteran courthouse dog. During cross examination, the defense attorney accidentally spilled his glass of water into the witness box and got Stilson the dog wet. And two or three people went over to mop the mess up. And Stilson didn’t move. That is remarkable behavior; not all dogs can do that.

“But if Stilson had popped out, then the jury would have seen Stilson. It would have been in violation of the judge’s order. … If that had happened, that would have been grounds for a mistrial or an issue on appeal.”

Find more information about courthouse canines on the web by visiting www.courthousedogs.org or www.assistancedogsofhawaii.org.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

 

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