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Court dog's job: Unconditional love for traumatized children

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Published:   |   Updated: February 14, 2014 at 12:48 PM

TAMPA — During days of trials, courtroom drama, disappointments and heartache, there's nothing like a wagging tail, the warmth of big, brown eyes and a well-placed lick on the ankle.

That's the hope of a group that deals with the physically and mentally abused, neglected and abandoned children who are hurtling toward uncertain futures in Hillsborough County's dependency courts.

A Labrador-golden retriever mix named Tibet will be the newest member of the courthouse dependency court staff. She is perfect for the job of picking up spirits, says Voices for Children Executive Director Betsy Smith.

“Tibet,” she said,” was born, bred and trained for this kind of work.”

Tibet, known as a facility dog, is graduating this week from the Canine Companions for Independence campus in Orlando, after two years of special training to provide comfort and support to children who have been removed from their homes because they have been harmed or neglected by their parents.

There are 51 such dogs in 21 states, but Tibet will be the first in Florida.

Canine Companions for Independence, a non-profit assistance organization, breeds dogs with special attributes and trains them for just this purpose, Smith said.

“These dogs are very intuitive about people's reactions to them,” she said. “They know when to approach someone and when to lay low. They are trained to be almost a living stuffed animal so that a child can pet it while in courtroom. The dog won't react in any way. They can lay there for hours and just be calm.”

She said she's seen a video of such a dog lying next to a witness stand during testimony from a child when a glass of water falls onto the dog's head.

“The dog never reacted,” she said. “That's how sophisticated these animals are.”

A trained facility dog is valued at about $25,000, she said, though the county won't have to pay anything. No taxpayer money will be spent on the program, even though Canine Companions for Independence continually visits the dog throughout it's career, offering additional training for both the dog and handler.

Tibet's coming out party is the first week in March, Smith said.

“We've been working on this for almost a year,” she said. “This is a first in the state. There are therapy dogs in other courtrooms, but this dog is able to be in presence of a child without its handler. If a child is giving testimony, the dog can go in there and just lay there.”

She said she wants to start Tibet working two or three days a week in the courtroom and “hopefully this program will grow and others will be trained to be handlers.”

Brenda Kocher of St. Petersburg, a volunteer with the Guardian ad Litem program, is Tibet's handler. She just finished two weeks of training in Orlando.

“It was very intensive,” she said in a telephone interview Thursday afternoon. “It's hard work, but wonderful.”

She first met Tibet at an interview on Dec. 9, she said, in which she was thoroughly vetted about her ability to care for, house and work with the specially trained dog.

“Tibet was one of three dogs brought out to work with us,” she said. “When I saw her, I immediately fell in love with her eyes and face. They tell you not to get attached to any one dog because they reserve the right to select the dog for you.”

But, it all worked out and the two were soon paired up.

The training wasn't easy and culminated Thursday morning with Kocher taking her charge to an Orlando mall for a public access test. There, the dog was put through a battery of scenarios, including gauging its reaction when food is dropped in front of it, which the dog ignored. She also walked through the mall without sniffing others, successfully picked up keys and pens off the floor and was not rattled on elevator rides.

“She had to be unobtrusive and well mannered,” Kocher said. The scrutiny will continue throughout the dog's life, she said. “I have to go back in June to be re-evaluated.”

Tibet's temperament won't just be on display in the courthouse, she said. She will be brought to places where children meet parents in supervised visits and possibly to homes of children as they are being interviewed by law enforcement officers.

“When children are frightened and intimidated, part of their brains shut down,” she said. “When you're under a lot of stress, your recall is not at its best and your ability to articulate yourself is not at its best. We want children to tell the truth, all of the truth, and a dog allows enough relaxation for them to do that.”

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Katherine Essrig is a big supporter of the program and helped when a push was needed to get a facility dog here.

In dependency court, she said, “We are set up to assist families with children who have been abused, abandoned, neglected or in danger of being abused, abandoned or neglected, so we are dealing with lot of children who have had a lot of trauma in their lives. When they come to court, it can be a frightening experience.

“So, by having a facility dog there to pet, to comb, to feed, to love, it will make the experience a much more confident one. It will give them confidence and put them at a comfort level that makes the experience less of a challenge, and a positive one.”

kmorelli@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7760

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