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Zebra Centre support dog helps child witness testify

03/06/2015 01:43 EST | Updated 05/06/2015 05:59 EDT
A teenage girl sits in front of a courtroom. Her alleged abuser is just metres away.

The girl’s legs are shaking. Her head is down. Hair falls over her eyes.

She has spoken clearly as she answers the lawyers’ questions about the evidence. But this is one of many long pauses. Her hands frantically wipe away tears.  

Then she pulls on the leash she’s been holding.

Four-year-old Wren’s big yellow head lifts and looks up. Girl and dog gaze at each other. The teenager sits straighter for awhile.

This is history. It’s the first time a judge in Edmonton has granted an application for a support dog to sit inside a courtroom — one of the first times support dogs have been used in Canadian courtrooms. 

Testifying can be traumatic

Yellow labradors Wren and Fossey volunteer with the Zebra Child Protection Centre, where city police and RCMP officers work with other  agencies that respond to allegations of child abuse.

Staff said they have completely changed the way they do their jobs since their arrival two years ago.

“They’re amazing,” said Ashley Hardy, who brings the dogs to meetings with victims and their families.

“The dogs can come into a room and know who’s feeling anxious, who has all these emotions and be able to walk up to that person and comfort them. When we may not be able to see that.”

The pair are at the centre almost every day. One of them greets each child when they arrive.

Highly trained at a special service dog school, Wren and Fossey are incredibly gentle and calm.

They follow orders with unfaltering discipline, allowing them to accompany the children during police forensic interviews at the centre.

Zebra staff said recounting the details of sexual abuse in those interviews can often feel as traumatic as the events themselves. Having a dog lay quietly by their side is a great support.

Alone no more

“You can see when the kids touch the dogs, they de-stress,” said handler Sarah Doolittle. “They’re a lot more relaxed and able to talk.”

Those interviews, which are video-taped at the centre, mean children do not have to spend as much time on the witness stand and face their alleged abusers in court. But sometimes it’s necessary.

Until Thursday, child witnesses in Edmonton have had to face that terror alone. There are strict rules barring any contact - even eye contact - between the child and a worker who may sit beside them on the stand for support.

The legal concern is that contact from the support person could sway the child’s testimony.

But there are no such concerns for animals, said provincial court judge Greg Lepp as he approved the dog’s presence on the stand. His reasoning is that the dog is strictly there to provide support.

'No one understands better than a dog'

The teenaged witness in court on Thursday rubbed Wren’s neck before she stood up to leave the courtroom.

Her testimony at the preliminary hearing was over. The judge decided there was enough evidence to take the case to trial.

Her experience echoes that of another child, who met one of the dogs as they toured the courthouse.

She had been crying as she prepared to testify. When the dog walked in, the girl laid on the floor and cuddled beside him. After a few minutes, she was calm and ready.

“I think there should be a support dog for every person, boy or girl, who is going through anything rough,” she later wrote in a letter to Zebra staff.

“There is no one who understands you more than a dog."

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