Cullman Courts going to the dogs, again!

Therapy dogs lowering tensions in courtrooms

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Left to right are Jennifer Cruise and Bailey, Judge Rusty Turner, Judge Kim Chaney, Paula Kretzschmar and Luke, Dena York and Rip. (Not pictured: Deb Schmidt and canine partner Millie) (W.C. Mann for The Cullman Tribune)

CULLMAN, Ala. – The Cullman County Courthouse, official office of Brooksie the court dog, has welcomed a fresh new crop of canine companions to its staff. On Tuesday, District Judge Rusty Turner announced that a local group of volunteer trainers and handlers with the Alliance of Therapy Dogs has begun working on an as-needed basis in the courthouse. The dogs are being used mainly with juveniles, but also with victims, witnesses and even defendants across the board to comfort those who are feeling the pressures of appearing in court, and to lower tensions for case participants and court staff alike.

The dogs have been at work for a short time now in the courtrooms of District Judges Kim Chaney and Turner, handled by Paula Kretzschmar, Jennifer Cruise, Dena York and Deb Schmidt. Observers have already reported a positive effect that the canines seem to have on people. They noted that withdrawn children tend to open up, silent kids start talking, and almost everyone in the room seems to become a little more cheerful and relaxed. One even remarked that she had never seen a child in handcuffs smile, until she saw one with one of the group’s dogs.

Turner said, “The juvenile area’s, I think, where it’s probably had the most effect, but I know there’s been a couple of situations with adults. You know, this is an uncomfortable place for a lot of people. And we get used to it; we live and work in it. But for most people, coming to court is sort of a scary thing, and I think it’s been a great thing to have the animals here, just to help allay some of those fears.”

Handler Cruise illustrated the dogs’ impact with a story about her Australian Shepherd Bailey:

“The first day we came in, it was lots and lots of people up here, and Bailey visited with everybody, was very friendly and it was so much fun. And she’s walking along and there was a particular young man who was petting on her and just sort of aloof, just sort of, ‘Okay, I’ll pet on her, but not really do a whole lot.’ 

“And we went on and we visited others, and we kept coming back to him. And then he started talking a little bit more to her. And he wouldn’t talk to the people; he just kept talking to her. And, after a period of time, they needed to talk to him privately, so we moved away.

“We were just wandering around, and he was very troubled about some news that he had received and he was very upset. And somebody said, ‘Do you want to pet the dog?’ and he said, ‘No, no, I don’t want to.’ He was very upset at first.

“And then Bailey just–he was sitting down–and Bailey walked right up to him and just sat there in front of him, and he just grabbed ahold of her and started hugging her and just petting on her, and she’s just licking all over him, just loving on him, and he just calmed down and then he just started talking to everybody, just talking to them.

“I don’t know what all the deal was or anything, but all I know is that she was just, ‘You’re just an ordinary person. I’m just here to love on you.’ And he took ahold of that and it encouraged him. So he just got a little smile on his face, relaxed and started talking to everybody, and it was wonderful.”

Chaney added, “It’s been a positive impact on all the children and families that we see.”

When one case participant asked why her dog was in the courtroom, handler/trainer Paula Kretzschmar explained the program.

Then the participant asked, “‘So the dog’s here to keep people from going ballistic?’ And I said, ‘Well, they’re here to make people feel good.’”

All of the dogs who participate in the program have successfully completed training programs of the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, and handlers must sign confidentiality agreements with the county court system. Their role does not readily expose them to sensitive details of cases, but victims, witnesses and defendants are protected anyway, so the dogs can simply do their jobs and make people feel better in court.

For more on the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, including information on how you and your canine friend might get involved, visit www.therapydogs.com

See The Tribune’s live stream of the program announcement at www.facebook.com/CullmanTribune/videos/734088740387057/

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W.C. Mann

craig@cullmantribune.com