When Molly, a 5-year-old Labrador-golden retriever mix, arrived at the Sarpy County Courthouse on Monday, she scooped her leash into her mouth and walked herself through the metal detector as if she had done it a hundred times before.
Molly is a courthouse dog, trained to calm victims and witnesses in pretrial meetings and court proceedings. She also visits courthouses across the country, such as Sarpy County's, that hope to add a court dog to their staff.
Though trained dogs have served in hospitals, homes and therapy settings for decades, courtrooms are a fairly new arena. Canine Companions for Independence, based in California, has trained more than 4,000 dogs, including Molly, since the organization was founded in 1975. Just 23 of their dogs work in the criminal justice system nationally. Sarpy County Attorney Lee Polikov wants a dog like Molly in Sarpy's court system and has begun the process to get one.
It would be the first courthouse dog trained by Canine Companions for Independence in Nebraska.
Molly and her handlers visited with judges, attorneys, Sarpy County Board members and representatives from local law enforcement agencies Monday and today to explain court dogs' role in the judicial system.
The dogs can respond to between 50 and 60 commands. Victims and witnesses, particularly children, often spend time telling the dog to shake or fetch, among other things — it gives them control in a situation where most feel powerless.
During interviews and court proceedings, the dogs sit or lie near victims and witnesses so they feel safe and secure.
Research shows that a dog's presence lowers blood pressure and levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, according to Ellen O'Neill-Stephens and Celeste Walsen of the Courthouse Dogs Foundation. The foundation is a nonprofit group that educates the public and legal professionals on courthouse dogs. O'Neill-Stephens and Walsen said they know of 41 professionally trained court dogs in 19 states.
The two showed video clips of dogs in action during an afternoon presentation. In one, a 5-year-old child would tell only a courthouse dog about her sexual assault, and in another, a mentally disabled man explained that he felt comfortable testifying only with one at his feet.
After the presentation, Juvenile Court Judge Bob O'Neal voiced his concern: “Does the dog become the show?”
Polikov, the county attorney, pointed to Molly in the middle of the room, a silent, furry statue. Like all court dogs, she barks only if told — when she does speak, it's as if she's clearing her throat. She sits patiently but usually lies down and even falls asleep next to whomever she's meant to help.
In Sarpy County, that would mean the dog would be hidden from view: The courthouse's witness stands are built in such a way that only the witness could see the dog.
Each judge would decide whether the dog would be allowed in his or her courtroom.
In Douglas County, Juvenile Court Judge Doug Johnson has been bringing his dog, Finnegan, to the courthouse for about seven months. Johnson said the English setter-standard poodle mix can help drain some of the tension from the room and can make it easier for scared children to testify.
“We've had cases,” Johnson said last month, “where if somebody's crying, (Finnegan) will go right up and look at you and he'll even put his paws on you.”
Finnegan is not a professionally trained court dog. In January, Johnson plans to have Finnegan trained as a pet therapy dog, which are not trained to work specifically in the court system.
Polikov said he expects that a Sarpy County dog would work predominantly with younger victims, though it would be available to others, including the defense team.
The dogs are worth roughly $25,000 after the training is complete. That cost is covered by Canine Companions for Independence.
In Sarpy County, a $10,000 grant from the Midlands Community Foundation would cover the handler's training and the cost of feeding, grooming and vet visits for two years. Beyond that, Polikov plans to reach out to local service groups for donations.
Jean Brazda, the director of the Victim Witness Unit and Diversion Services, will be the dog's handler if she successfully interviews with Canine Companions for Independence in Ohio in October. It typically takes one year after the interview to receive a dog, which usually retires within eight to 10 years.
Brazda will determine the dog's workload. The dog will also live with her.
“It is a huge commitment,” Brazda said. “But the payoff is huge.”
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