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May 15, 2013
Second Circuit swears in therapy dogs

The K9s are used to comfort children in court

By Megan E. Davis
Associate Editor

When the bailiff said “all rise,” some stood on two legs, others on four.

For the 13 dogs appearing before the judge on a late afternoon in April, it wasn’t their first time in a courtroom.

BOBBY STAERKER HELPS HIS DOG BLUE sign an oath with an ink-covered paw as Blue is sworn in as an officer of the court. “He’s not impressed by robes and formalities,” said handler Hillary Ryan, of her 9-year-old boxer, Buell. “What he is impressed by are children and those he can comfort and care for.”

Buell and his other four-legged companions — from dachshund to Great Dane — and their handlers are part of the Second Judicial Circuit’s court-sponsored animal therapy program.

Together the dog-handler teams provide comfort to children who are victims of crimes or part of dependency court proceedings as they testify before juries, give depositions, and make other court appearances.

At a swearing-in ceremony held at the Leon County Courthouse in Tallahassee, Circuit Judge James C. Hankinson honored the teams for their service.

With tails wagging, each dog was sworn in as an officer of the court and used an ink-covered paw to officially sign the oath.

After the ceremony, Ryan recounted her experiences with Buell in the program.

“When he first came in, the bailiff said he thought he might scare people more than comfort them,” she said. “But the truth of the matter is that Buell is so calm that he’s really good, even with small children. He’s really a gentle giant.”

Together Ryan and Buell visit the courthouse about once a month to help children through dependency proceedings. In all, the boxer has participated in about 20 different cases.

As a lawyer, Ryan said she especially appreciates the service her dog is able to provide.

“I’m in a unique position in that I understand a lot of what’s going on,” she said. “But I have to be hypervigilant about maintaining confidentiality and not giving legal advice. All courtroom visits, even for something positive, can be stressful and Buell’s here to help. I’m there to help on other occasions in a different facet and I keep those two separate.”

A newspaper article about a victim advocate in Polk County with a service dog inspired the program, which formed in August 2007, said Susan Wilson, director of research and data for the Second Circuit.

“She noticed that children bonded with her dog and when they had to testify in court, she’d advise them to focus on the dog,” she said.

With support from the Tallahassee Memorial Healthcare Animal Therapy Program, dogs were initially used to comfort children testifying as victims of violent crimes.

The roles of the dogs in court cases expanded as the program grew.

In 2009, Wakulla County Judge Jill Walker incorporated the therapy dogs into an initiative to have children participate in dependency court cases.

“Petting an animal is proven to lower blood pressure and release stress-reducing hormones,” said Court Administrator Grant Slayden. “They make parties feel more comfortable and make them more willing to give accurate information and tell what they feel.”

Susan Parmalee, a victim advocate for child and adult victims of sexual abuse and violence, described the tremendous impact the program has had on her clients.

“Many times children who are victims of sexual abuse find it difficult to talk about the ugly facts of their victimization,” she said. “I’ve seen children brave enough to walk into the courtroom and talk, sometimes with their faces in their hands, about someone touching them in a very private place. I’ve seen those same children reach down and stroke a dog when it’s difficult to get the words out.”

To date, the dogs have participated in 55 criminal cases and have assisted children in more than 120 dependency cases.

The program has also inspired nine other circuits in Florida to begin similar initiatives.

Wilson said the initiative works due to the dedication of both the handlers and the dogs.

“We usually talk about the specially trained dogs, but actually the success of our program is due to our specially trained teams — with handlers and dogs working in harmony,” she said. “We are very appreciative to our handlers for undergoing intensive training, putting up with changes in court schedules, and for weathering the emotional impact of volunteering.”

[Revised: 09-01-2014]