Cullman courts are going to the dogs!

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Alabama’s original court dog Willow (far left) was joined this week by four new partners: Zurg, Mandy, Wilson, and Josette.  Photo courtesy Alabama District Attorneys Association

Alabama a national leader in use of facility dogs to ease stress in courts; coming to Cullman soon

MONTGOMERY – Alabama’s courts are going to the dogs at an ever-increasing rate, and it’s a great thing!  Referred to as “facility dogs,” these specially trained canine court officers can lower stress levels and make it easier for people brought to court by traumatic events–from child abuse victims to veteran offenders suffering from PTSD–to relax, focus, give sensitive testimony, and get through the rigors of a day in court. And they’re coming to Cullman. 

On Monday, Alabama District Attorneys Association and Office of Prosecution Services spokesman Eddie Lard issued this press release: 

Willow is a 7-year-old, black Labrador mix with midnight dark eyes and a quiet, calm disposition. Her favorite thing to do is to sit and, oftentimes, lie quietly next to the feet of her human companion and perhaps enjoy a gentle pat or soothing rub. 

For those qualities, she spends a lot of her time each week in court or interview rooms. Willow, though, is not a crime dog – at least not in the sense of McGruff the TV crime dog. But Willow is, you might say, an officer of the court, and she plays a critical role in bringing justice to crime victims and their offenders. 

Willow is a facility dog, well-trained to be a calming presence for traumatized victims. She is at their feet when they must replay to the court or investigators the painful, heartbreaking stories of their physical or sexual assault. Most often, these are children who need a friendly, furry companion to feel (relaxed) enough to open up about the horrors they experienced. 

And Willow is a first – the first dog in Alabama entrusted with and trained to handle such responsibility. 

“The training starts at birth,” Tamara Martin, special projects coordinator for the state’s Office of Prosecution Services and Willow’s five-year pal and handler, said of the process facility dogs go through before being certified for court. “They are conditioned to handle the stress, loud noises and things other dogs would consider threatening. They are trained to associate certain sounds with pleasure rather than sounds they should be afraid of.” 

Willow is no longer alone as the only dog certified to work with crime victims in Alabama. Four other facility dogs are now on the job. They will be joined by two additional dogs in August. Within a year, there could be as many as 12 trained and certified dogs assisting crime victims, spread throughout the state, the ADAA and OPS announced at a press conference at the Montgomery County Courthouse. 

What started as a one-person mission, with Martin self-funding the care and handling of Willow, got a major boost this year when OPS was awarded a $700,00 Victims of Crime Act grant through the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs. The grant is for one year, but is renewable. 

Another big contributor to the success of the program is Canine Companions for Independence, a national nonprofit that provides the dogs and trains them. Training for each dog costs about $50,000, according to Martin. Canine Companions places the dogs free of charge. 

In addition to Willow, who is based in Montgomery, facility dogs are currently operating out of Dothan, Clanton, Phenix City and Huntsville. Next month, Lauderdale County and Shelby County will get dogs. Etowah, Covington, Baldwin, Tallapoosa and Morgan counties could get dogs within a year, according to Trisha Mellberg, deputy executive for the OPS and the DA Association.  

“These dogs are amazing,” Mellberg said. “We applied for the ADECA grant because we have seen how these dogs help victims as they have to relive the very worst moments of their lives. It’s hard especially for children to talk about what happened to them to strangers. These dogs put them at ease so they are comfortable enough to tell about their experiences.” 

ADAA and OPS Executive Barry Matson applauds Martin, Mellberg, Canine Companions and Gov. Kay Ivey, whose office presented the grant, for making the program and its expansion possible. 

“This puts Alabama at the very forefront when it comes to assisting visitors in the courtroom as well as when they are interviewed by police and prosecutors,” Matson said. “Other states have looked at what we are doing with the dogs and want to copy it. We even had a visitor from Australia who came here last year to see what we are doing in order to help them with their start-up program.”  

Shelby County District Attorney Jill Lee, president of the Alabama District Attorneys Association, is one of the DAs whose circuit is getting a dog next month. 

“We are just thrilled,” Lee said. “We’ve seen Willow in action in Shelby County and witnessed firsthand what a difference she made with the victims. This grant means not only our circuit, but others across Alabama as well, will have these wonderful friends of the court available when needed.” 

Coming soon to a court near you! 

Cullman County Circuit Judge Gregory Nicholas has requested a facility dog for our courthouse, and trainers hope to be able to deliver later this year. 

Alabama’s court dogs are trained by Service Dogs Alabama (SDA), based in Hope Hull near Montgomery. Co-founder and head trainer Ashley Taylor supervises a two-year program to develop dogs for various forms of work, including diabetic service, seizure alert, stability/balance, wheelchair assistance, autism anxiety interception, and PTSD episode response. 

The dogs are trained to sense increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and other indicators that their assigned human’s stress levels are getting out of control, and respond with subtle distraction techniques like nose nudges or putting their heads in the human’s lap to help ground them and pull them out of panic attacks and other negative stress reactions. 

What do dogs do in court? 

As trauma victims prepare to testify, usually in front of the people who made them victims, they are introduced to the dogs, who can accompany them to the witness stand.  

There, according to Taylor, “The dog’s laying their head in their lap and letting them pet the dog helps them. You know, it doesn’t feel like someone’s staring at you when you’re having to retell all these things. They, a lot of times, will say the person is looking down the whole time at the dog, stroking the dog, and it’s a little bit easier for them to get the words out.  You do not get them having panic attacks as much. They typically are giving way more details because they feel at ease; you know, their anxiety is being relieved, and it’s easier for them.  They feel like they’re talking to the dog, and obviously a dog is not judgmental.” 

Trainers teach the dogs to respond to 40-55 specific commands, but they also evaluate the animals’ individual personalities to determine how they can best serve.  Judge Gregory Nicholas told The Tribune that Cullman County was slated to get a court dog in June of this year, but “Bailey,” the helper in training, showed a higher level of skill in aiding children with autism; so she received a last-minute reassignment as a kid companion in a north Cullman County family. 

Other dogs are in training, and Cullman will still get its canine court officer, possibly within the next few months. According to Taylor, most of SDA’s dogs are Labrador Retrievers, but the service does train certain other dogs; and Cullman is getting a special order. 

Taylor reported, “(Judge Nicholas) requested a “labradoodle” (Labrador Retriever/Poodle hybrid) for his court system. So, we run about probably 85% of our dogs are full-blooded Labrador Retrievers; but he just thought, especially for the kids, a labradoodle would look a little less imposing. So we’re waiting for a labradoodle for a placement for him, so we may still be a couple of months out.”

Judge Nicholas told us that Cullman’s dog will be used for many different types of cases, especially those in which children have to appear as witnesses: child abuse, sexual abuse, dependency, divorce/custody and others. The dog’s ability to lower stress levels could even be put to use for certain defendants like veterans in the county’s new Veterans’ Court, who might suffer from emotional disorders like PTSD.

Taylor told us that her program has four male labradoodles who will be ready for placement by early fall, and she hopes that one of them will have the necessary personality and skill set to become Cullman’s newest court officer.

For more on court dogs and the work of Service Dogs Alabama, visit https://www.servicedogsalabama.org.