Paws-itive impact Manny provides sense of calm, comfort at courthouse

 Jean Brazda with the Sarpy County Attorney’s Office pets Manny, the courthouse facility dog, in their office. Manny works with victims and witnesses to calm and comfort them.

Manny can bring a sense of normalcy to the courtroom.

When a 7-year-old girl sat perched on the witness stand of a Sarpy County courtroom, testifying before a judge and her uncle, who was accused of murdering her grandfather, Manny sat at her feet.

The girl held on tight to the 3-year-old Labrador retriever-golden retriever’s leash.

Barely able to see over the stand, she bravely told her story in detail.

When she finished, she and Manny walked off the stand and out into the hallway.

“You did awesome. I’m so proud of you,” said Manny’s handler, Jean Brazda.

“I was freaking out up there. But I had Manny. I knew I was OK because I had Manny,” the girl told Brazda.

Manny works with Brazda, executive director of the Sarpy County Victim/Witness Unit and Diversion Services. He interacts with people, especially juveniles, going through the court system in the county.

His purpose is to calm victims and witnesses.

He joined the county in 2014 and is the first dog of his kind in the state. From October 2014 to Sept. 30, 2015, Manny was involved with 69 cases and had contact with 118 duplicated victims, meaning he may have had repeated contact with some.

“His whole purpose is to calm things down,” Brazda said. “Most of the time, with children, it’s a really traumatic event and we know that when you start to get nervous, the first thing that goes is your verbal skills.

“We bring a child in and we start to talk to them about some horrific experience that has occurred and they don’t talk. But we bring Manny into the situation and the child sits on the floor with Manny and they start to calm down. They start answering questions. We start developing a relationship. It’s amazing watching their whole demeanor change.”

Manny comes from Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit organization with a location in Delaware, Ohio.

Worth about $48,000, Manny is owned by Canine Companions. He has a $1 million insurance policy on him to ensure he’s never aggressive toward anyone. A $10,000 grant from the Midlands Community Foundation helped to cover Manny’s initial costs.

Officials with the organization took into account Brazda’s personality and her needs when matching her with Manny.

“I think they chose him because this is what he likes to do,” Brazda said, motioning to the sleeping dog. “He loves to lay down. Whenever he gets the opportunity to lay down, he will and that’s what I need him to do.”

Manny and other dogs from Canine Companions are bred to be therapy and service dogs. They undergo 18 months of intense training, followed by six months of certification training to learn specific commands.

Brazda and Manny must get recertified every year. He will work for 10 to 12 years with Brazda.

Armed with 38 different commands, Manny can do the basics, like “sit,” “shake” and “stay.” But he’s also able to turn off lights, open doors and sit still to get dressed in his service dog vest. He even goes to the bathroom only when told.

One of his commands “lap,” where he rests his paws on a person’s lap, is often used with children, like with one young girl during a deposition, TBrazda said.

“The girl just lost it and started crying,” she said. “They took a break and the advocate gave Manny the ‘lap’ command. She just held him and bawled. She was able to compose herself, regroup and finish the deposition. That just shows how much power he has to relax a situation and calm a person down.”

So far, Manny’s proven himself in the courthouse.

“I think he has proven himself to the members of the criminal justice system,” Brazda said. “I think that defense attorneys are going to continue to argue his presence. They have a job to do and this is something new. There’s not case law out there to support the use of a facility dog in Nebraska.”

Right now, Manny is mainly used in juvenile court cases.

There are three adjudication hearings where he will sit with the victim while they testify.

On the adult side of things, Manny has been used in one trial and has been part of several depositions.

Comforting others is just natural to Manny, Brazda said. And he often gets visits from those he’s helped after their court cases are done.

“He recognizes the people he’s had contact with,” she said. “The little girls come back to see Manny. This is Manny’s work. They don’t see this as the courthouse where they had to talk about terrible things.”

Manny’s assumed another duty around the courthouse — helping employees of the attorney’s office.

“When our prosecutors or advocates are having a horrible day or they heard some graphic stuff, they come in and sit down with Manny,” Brazda said. “I know I benefit from him, but it’s nice to see that other people are taking advantage of it as well. That lightheartedness breaks up some of the chaos we have to deal with.”

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