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Courtroom canines relieve stress for Pasco kids

DADE CITY

Being in court could have been traumatic for the 12-year-old girl. Her mother wore jail stripes. Her father, who battled substance abuse, talked about trying to get clean. Attorneys debated who should have custody of the girl and her sister.

Details were unpleasant, but the girl drew comfort from Myki and George, gentle tail-wagging therapy dogs approved by veteran Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper.

"Everybody needs stress relief," said Tepper, who owns two dogs and five cats herself. "I knew the benefit of animals.''

Julie Scott, a Dade City family law attorney, approached Tepper for the program last year. George, her 6-year-old Labradoodle, had visited hospitals and schools as a certified therapy dog. Students at Academy at the Farm read to him and got stickers with his picture on them that said "I read to George today!"

Scott, all too familiar with the stress children face in court, wanted to help.

"It's nice to be able to bring a smile to a child's face when so often you've had to bring a tear," she said.

Scott approached Tepper, who got final approval from administrative Judge William Sestak.

She then got other handlers of certified dogs to volunteer for the program. Today, about 11 teams are involved.

All canine companions must undergo training and be certified as therapy dogs. Handlers must undergo background checks. Scott also interviews each handler and observes them during a test run to make sure they make a good fit. They must sign an agreement that says anything that goes on in court stays confidential.

"There's a lot to think about," said Wakullah County Judge Jill C. Walker, who was the first to use the dogs in dependency court. "It's not just 'Oh, my neighbor has a dog.' "

Walker, who does not own a pet, said her advocacy for the program is evidence-based.

"What sold me on it is the science," she said. "When people pet a dog, their stress level goes down. It relaxes them."

When tensions are diffused, Walker said, parties can provide more detailed information, which in turn helps her make better rulings.

"A lot of people who come in feel they are involved in a criminal process. It's not. My goal is to make them a better family than they were when they came in."

Both judges say they have never had a problem with the dogs.

"A few skeptical judges have questioned it because it seems warm and fuzzy," Walker said.

Tepper recalled a time when a teenager frustrated from years in the system was about to have a confrontation with her mother.

"She was getting more and more agitated," Tepper said. A few strokes of Myki's soft white fur did the trick.

"You could see her calming down," Tepper said.

The dogs, who wore costumes to court on Halloween, seem to enjoy the attention.

They perk up and wag at the approach of anyone who looks like they might want to pet them.

"It takes the right dog," Scott said. When George is at home, "he can be a crazy nut." When he puts on the therapy dog vest, "he knows it's time to go to work."

Scott hopes to expand the program to west Pasco and Pinellas.

The idea has already caught on nationally.

In New York City, all five district attorneys began considering using dogs earlier this year after an appeals court upheld a 2011 rape conviction from a trial in which a 15-year-old girl testified while petting a golden retriever named Rose.

According to the New York Daily News, it marked the first time in state history that a dog was on the stand.

In his appeal, the defendant argued that the presence of dogs was inherently prejudicial. But the appeals court disagreed, comparing it to the precedent of allowing children to clutch stuffed animals.

No dog has taken the stand yet in Tepper's courtroom.

But they have become popular with more than just kids.

"We are so glad this program started," said Wanda Davis, an attorney for Pasco's guardian ad litem program. She has noticed how kids' demeanor changes when they see a dog. Plus kids often have long waits and need a distraction.

Tepper said the program also helps kids who miss their pets.

"I once got a letter from a girl in a group home who was more worried about her kitten and her turtles than anything else," she said.

Courtroom canines relieve stress for Pasco kids 12/06/13 [Last modified: Friday, December 6, 2013 6:42pm]

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