posted March 21st, 2015 by
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Taking A Stand For Child Victims


By Debra Cox



It’s an ordinary day for Nala, my 3-year-old German Shepherd, until I reach for her special “work” collar and vest that carries her special badge, identifying her as a member of the Special Dog Unit of the Tulsa County District Attorney’s office.

Nala stands alert with ears pointed forward as I put on her uniform, looking up at me with her telling eyes—she knows she will have a special job today, taking care of a child who will need her help. Then it’s time to “load up” for our journey to the courthouse. Upon arrival at the Victim Witness Center, Nala checks in for our assignment by putting her front paws up on the reception desk, which brings smiles from the attorneys and staff!

Then it’s down to business for Nala as she goes in search of her child in the waiting room, and she seems to know exactly which child is hers to care for on this day. How she knows this, I will never know. There can be a room full of people, and Nala will instantly go right up to her child and family with ears up and eyes alert.

It’s pretty amazing to see the instant connection they make as the “German Shepherd lean” goes into full force and Nala visits each family member, giving comfort and love unconditionally as therapy dogs do. When Nala feels certain that her child is calm and OK, she flops to the floor for the belly rub that she knows will surely come from her new friend as they go through this difficult process of the legal system together.

When Nala looks into the eyes of her child victim, the message comes through loud and clear as if she’s saying, “You can trust me. I’ll be right here by your side to help you get through this!”

You see, what none of the children whom Nala meets at the Victim Witness Center know about her is that Nala knows a lot about lack of trust. When you meet her these days, Nala will come right up to you, give you a kiss, wiggle and lean on you… but she was nothing like this when I first met her at the Tulsa German Shepherd Rescue facility.

At 8 months old, skin and bones at 42 pounds, and missing 5 inches from a fresh wound to her tail, Nala was nothing like the big, regal German Shepherd I envisioned owning. My friend Nancy, who is my voice of reason where pet adoption is concerned, went with me. I know I can trust her to not let me make rash decisions based purely on emotion.

We sat down on a stump, and Nala slowly crawled over to us on her belly with the saddest eyes that seemed to tell her story of neglect and abuse. She never barked once and just leaned into us. After thinking it over carefully that night, I went back the next day for another look, and Nala adopted me—she jumped into my car and wouldn’t get out!

Once I got her home, it was quickly apparent that our life together wasn’t going to start out smoothly. Nala spent the first six months hiding from me. Wherever in the house I was, she wasn’t. Trust is hard to earn from an abused dog just as it is with children of abuse. But with a lot of love, training, socialization and loads of patience, eventually Nala came out of her shell. It was then that I began to research volunteer work using dogs. In light of Nala’s connection with children and my own love of kids, I knew that I wanted to do something that would significantly help young people in some way. I began talking with everyone in the dog world, and one day a friend suggested looking into court therapy work.

As I own Summit Recruiting, Inc., a legal recruitment firm, I felt this was the perfect opportunity for Nala and me to do volunteer work for the legal community that has been so supportive of me over the last 16 years. So I dove into researching the use of therapy dogs in courtrooms across the country, and I knew for certain that this was exactly where Nala and I needed to be, helping child victims in the court system. Nala and I began the process of registration through Therapy Dogs, Inc., and she was approved to join the Special Dog Unit (SDU) with the office of the Tulsa County District Attorney.

As one of six team members of the SDU, Nala and I work closely with the prosecutors and victim advocates to help ease the stress of young children in the court process who are involved in abuse or neglect or who have witnessed violence.

The courtroom can be a scary place for anyone, especially children, as they must talk with strangers about sometimes terrible events that have happened to them or that they have witnessed in their lives. The use of therapy dogs helps the child to relax enough to talk and gives a tactile comfort to the child through touch. The child may feel safer when recalling events in a pre-trial hearing or courtroom, and testimony is improved with the presence of the therapy dog.

The benefits of having these animals available to lend emotional support to children far “outweigh any possible prejudice to the defendant” (National District Attorneys Association [NDAA], 2007).  Studies have proven that the presence of companion animals can lower the blood pressure and human heart rate, and the touch of a therapy dog can change the physiology of a nervous child.

Therapy dog use in the courtroom has become more and more widespread across the country over the past several years. Court therapy dogs are highly trained animals and remain quiet and unobtrusive when accompanying a child on the witness stand, often so much so that a jury is not even aware the dog is present in the courtroom.  In April 2014, Governor Mary Fallin signed House Bill No. 2591, which will go into effect in November 2014, allowing the use of emotional therapeutic dogs with the proper certification in all of the State Courts of Oklahoma.

This bill was drafted by Steve Kunzweiler, Tulsa County Assistant District Attorney, who was instrumental in developing and implementing the start-up of the Special Dog Unit in Tulsa County. This new law will have a significant impact on the therapy dogs’ ability to help countless child witnesses and victims throughout the State of Oklahoma.

There’s an undeniable bond between children and animals.  A walk through almost any neighborhood is proof of this.  However, the bond between a therapy dog and an abused child is nothing short of magical to observe, as the animal provides non-judgmental comfort and can ultimately help with the healing process for the child. One of the main objectives of the Tulsa District Attorney’s office is that by the use of the therapy dogs, the children’s memory of the courthouse will be their special dog friend and not the uncomfortable things they’ve had to discuss.

As I’ve heard Steve Kunzweiler so aptly put it when speaking with various groups about the Tulsa County court dog program: “I once heard that ‘D-O-G’ is ‘G-O-D’ spelled backward.  It is truly incredible the miracle that these court dogs work with these child victims.”

During one of our most recently assigned cases, Nala and I were in the kids’ playroom with our child witness and her family. After a rousing game of hiding toys for Nala to find, the girl turned to her mother and said, “…Can we get a Nala?”  Nala gave her a big tongue-hanging-out grin and sloppy dog kiss, and the girl’s big smile gave us all happy hearts!  Court dogs truly do make a difference!

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