Santa Claus at Bass Pro Shops in Leeds had some special helpers on Monday.
Eight highly trained courtroom facility dogs, each wearing scarves and reindeer antlers, posed with Santa in a photo most would be proud to have on their Christmas cards.
Facility dogs are becoming a growing presence in Alabama courtrooms. They provide a calming presence for traumatized victims who must describe their victimization to investigators and often a courtroom full of strangers.
Most often, the victims are children who have to tell their heartbreaking stories of their physical and/or sexual abuse. Facility dogs provide these children a friendly, furry companion to help them feel relaxed enough to open up about the horrors they experienced.
Thanks to Canine Companions of Independence and a grant funded by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, Alabama is the leader in the use of facility dogs in the courtroom. In fact, Alabama has the only statewide facility dog program in the nation. Other states are now using Alabama as a model for their programs.
Dogs receive training for two years, from the age of eight weeks old. Each learns 40 different commands, and not just the commonplace “sit” or “stay.” The dogs are then matched with a handler, who goes through two weeks of intensive training to learn how to properly speak the commands.
Mandy, a yellow Labrador retriever, which is the most common breed for training, can play cards, pull wagons, play with cars, paint pictures, and answer “yes” or “no” questions by using flashcards.
Her handler, Tony Luker from Dothan, said, “All the dogs bring different skills to the table, especially with the kids. It can be hard for children that have been through trauma to talk to adults, and having the dog there opens up the dialogue.”
Tamara Martin started the program five years ago with just one dog, Willow. By the end of next year, the state will have 12 trained facility dogs covering every region. Martin was a victim advocate and program coordinator in Montgomery, and saw first-hand the effects of sexual assault and domestic violence.
“I thought of ways we could help victims and impact the success of their case,” Martin said. After working with Willow, she said, “This is going to be my mission.”
That mission has helped hundreds of victims throughout the state. One facility dog, Wilson from Huntsville, worked with 141 children over the course of a few months in the court system.
“Sometimes these kids have to testify in open court in front of the person that traumatized them,” Luker said. “The dogs provide calmness and comfort. The kids are scared and sometimes it’s hard for them to testify to the best of their ability. Dogs help.”
Facility dogs are used in courtrooms all across the state, and have partnered with Child Advocacy centers for forensic interviews and children’s therapy.