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Therapy Dogs Ease Tension When Children are Questioned in Court

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When young children are asked to testify in court, the reasons are often severe and painful. It’s a huge responsibility to spell out the explicit truth in front of a room of solemn faces. Some children may sense the gravity of the situation but that doesn’t make the task any easier.

The Ninth Judicial Circuit Court of Florida is keenly aware of this and has made room on the docket for a few comforting companions.The Orange County K-9th Circuit Program matches children entered as witnesses with comfort animals who stay with the child throughout their testimony.

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The program was created by Judge Thomas W. Turner, backed by research showing that people “recollect facts and provide more accurate information regarding traumatic events when they are calm and feel safe,” according to the Circuit Court.

“Facing the person who hurt you – it’s scary,” said trainer Joanne Hart-Rittenhouse. “Most of them won’t testify, won’t go through a deposition, if they don’t have a dog beside them.”

The dogs perform a crucial role in the justice system. Important evidence in a trial might not be revealed if a child is afraid to speak. And no dog is better suited for the role of easing this tension than Karl, a floppy, deaf, 65-pound Boxer. With or without his blue hat, Karl’s combination of goofiness and warmth has eased many anxious witnesses as they’ve spoken. And being larger than most of the witnesses he flops down by, Karl is also able to offer a sense of security to children.

“One of the questions a child had asked me, the person who had hurt her that was in the courtroom with her, ‘If he comes over and tries to hurt me, will Karl protect me?'” Hart-Ritterhouse told Crossroads Today.

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Although Karl will never hear the children speak, he’s able to make life easier for them, even after the court proceedings have ended.

“We’ll be there as long as the child wants Karl to stay in their life,” Hart-Rittenhouse said. “He’s helped a lot of children.”

Pet therapy teams, ADA certified trainers, and professional handlers work together in this program, the first of its kind in Florida. The Circuit also has canine assistance at its Juvenile Justice Center, where a Courthouse Facility Dog works with children.

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“With the assistance of our dog teams, children and adults are able to relieve their anxiety about the underlying traumatic events so they can provide more precise testimony in court proceedings,” the Ninth Judicial Circuit Court of Florida reports. “With a clearer record, the Court is able to dispense justice more effectively and equitably.”

Dogs provide invaluable comfort in some of our hardest times. Follow this link to read more about a dog that helps people cope with the death of a loved one at a funeral home.

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Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and world traveler with a background in journalism, graphic design, and French pastry. He likes to learn new things whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, folk music and coffee.