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Tibet the courthouse dog takes to the silver screen and raises funds to hire a helper

A program representing children in the Hillsborough courts system relies on Tibet the trained courthouse dog to comfort them. A second dog has been requested and handler Brenda Kocher said the program could use even more. [MONICA HERNDON   |   Times]
A program representing children in the Hillsborough courts system relies on Tibet the trained courthouse dog to comfort them. A second dog has been requested and handler Brenda Kocher said the program could use even more. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published Dec. 25, 2017

TAMPA — Tibet the courthouse dog came to Hillsborough County with a mission — sit alongside abused, neglected and abandoned children during court proceedings to provide emotional comfort.

But in the four years the golden retriever-Labrador mix has been on the job, she has expanded the description. Tibet now cuddles up to troubled people of all ages in a number of settings — as they undergo medical evaluations, for example, and during interviews with law enforcement.

"I make Tibet available 25 hours a week but could do more," said Brenda Kocher, her handler. "We continue to be more embraced. She needs help."

So Kocher and others, again, turned to Tibet — assigning her a new role as movie star.

Once again, she's a hit.

Since last summer, a 15-minute documentary about Tibet has made its way through social media channels and the national film festival circuit, drawing the attention of fans as well as a local foundation that has agreed to fund operational costs of around $25,000 a year for a second courthouse dog.

Children's advocates hope a new dog arrives by summer. The financial commitment gives Hillsborough County a leg up but other pieces have to fall in place before the move is final.

Voices for Children of Tampa Bay, which spearheads the courthouse dog program and produced the documentary, has sent a request for a new dog to California-based Canine Companions for Independence. The organization spends two years training each dog for a number of service needs.

Courthouse dogs are conditioned to stay docile under all circumstances.

"There is no more chaotic environment than a courthouse," Kocher said. "But Tibet is rock solid through everything."

There was a time when people were divided over the value of courthouse dogs, with some judges and attorneys concerned the animals might snap or prove to be a distraction. The issue is explored in the documentary, which shows one-time critics who now are converts admitting that none of their concerns materialized.

Tibet: A Dogumentary by Voices for Children and Guardian ad Litem from GA Films on Vimeo.

Courthouse dogs are valued at $50,000 each and carry a $1 million liability policy, costs covered by Canine Companions. Voices for Children pays the operational expenses — veterinary bills, food and travel. The total for Tibet is about $5,000 a year, paid through grants and donations.

Kocher gave up a career as a physical therapist to volunteer as Tibet's handler. She can't handle a second dog, though, and finding someone else to work for free is a long shot.

"The challenge has always been finding another Brenda," said Tabitha Lambert, circuit director for Hillsborough Guardian Ad Litem, a group that represents more than 3,600 children who come before the county's dependency court system.

The foundation's contribution will cover the $20,000 cost of hiring a part-time handler.

"We receive no money from city, county, state or federal," said Ronna Kennedy, executive director of Voices for Children. "We depend on kindness."

The group filmed the documentary mainly to spread the word about the success of the courthouse dog program to counties not using it yet.

Tibet was Florida's first courthouse dog and now they've been brought on board in Orange, Oseola and Seminole counties, Kocher said. Since Tibet started working, the number nationwide has doubled to 154.

Hillsborough would be the first in Florida with two. It could use even more, Lambert said.

"These kids have been through trauma that no one should," she said. "The impact Tibet has on our kids is amazing. We could use another two."

The documentary attracted an additional $3,000 worth of in-kind services. Among the contributors was the Yale Club of Tampa Bay, which funded a comfortable space in the Hills­borough Guardian Ad Litem office where children are interviewed for trial preparation, depositions and other purposes.

The room is designed like a beach cottage "so kids don't feel like they have been called into the principal's office," Kocher said.

The documentary cost around $10,000 to make, also funded through donations — including a price break from co-producer HCP Marketing, Strategy and Research.

"The most rewarding part of making the documentary was learning what Tibet does for the kids," said HCP partner Eric Pollins. "When you realize all the good she has done, you realize why more are needed."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow
@PGuzzoTimes.