Russell understands 80 commands, but it is a good thing he doesn’t speak English.
A little girl, carefully dressed for her court appearance, sits in the witness box. At her feet and hidden from view lies Russell the courthouse facility dog. It is the golden retriever’s silent and comforting presence that enables the little girl to testify about unspeakable abuse by the father staring at her across the room.
The scene is fictional but representative of those that will be repeated over and over in Tucson, Arizona, as the Southern Arizona Children’s Advocacy Center tries to get more than 1,000 crimes to court every year. Trained in Santa Fe by Linda Milanesi, executive director of Assistance Dogs of the West (ADW), Russell is one of a new breed of champions of juvenile justice—canine champions of juvenile justice—that are beginning to appear all over the country.
The concept of courthouse facility dogs originated with a woman named Ellen O’Neill-Stephens, who founded Courthouse Dogs in 2004 after retiring from 26 years as a prosecutor in Seattle. Her program has now facilitated the placement of dogs in 17 states, Chile, and British Columbia.
An extraordinary coincidence inspired the establishment of this program. O’Neill-Stephens has a disabled son who has an assistance dog. One day she discovered that Jeeter’s presence in the courthouse had an extraordinary, calming effect on people under stress and particularly on children who were being questioned about crimes. An idea was born.
Jeeter, like Russell, was trained by one of the organizations like ADW that are certified by Assistance Dogs International. Courthouse Dogs does not train the dogs; it trains personnel handling the dogs in the meticulous procedures required to ensure compliance with legal requirements.
It takes two years of intensive training at a total cost (including veterinary expenses and food) of about $25,000 to prepare a dog for assistance service. ADW, a nonprofit founded by Jill Felice, donated Russell to the Advocacy Center in Tucson in the fall. With $11,000 in seized drug profits, the Advocacy Center paid for six days of training at 14 hours per day by the ADW team to get Russell and his handlers to meet a tight duty deadline. They worked in tandem with Courthouse Dogs, which was paid $6,000 to ensure that the program conformed to county requirements.
Golden retrievers are a beloved breed due to their wonderful temperament, but Linda Milanesi (a long-time friend) explains that it is not easy to find one that is qualified to be an assistance dog. For one thing, over-breeding has resulted in vulnerability to canine cancer and hip dysplasia. Jill Felice found Russell with a breeder inTaos, and Linda says that the puppy was an unknown in the beginning. However, he revealed real quality as he developed, and tests ultimately indicated that he is extremely sound.
That’s not to say that he was always easy to work with. To be a courthouse facility dog, special qualities are required. Low body movement is essential as is ease with being touched a lot. A dog also has to be extremely resilient, quick to recover from severe stress. And he or she must also be very “biddable,” able to take direction from others besides the primary handler.
These qualities were not entirely apparent during Russell’s adolescent phase. He was a “tough teenager,” as Linda put it, and hormones ran his life. If there was a female dog nearby whether in heat or not, he couldn’t focus. Linda also teaches teenagers to work with assistance dogs, and they found Russell very difficult until he was neutered. Then they all loved him, and it became clear that he had a real gift in relating to them.
During the training in Tucson, Linda was exposed to some of the abuse children suffer, and she had to struggle to distance herself emotionally from the horror. Russell understands 80 commands, but it is a good thing he doesn’t speak English. It would be hard for him to comprehend how evil humans can be.
But the bright side is that he plays such an important role in healing. As Kathy Rau, executive director of the Advocacy Center says, “The difference he’s made here is difficult to put into words–just the look in the kids’ eyes when he walks into the room is worth everything we needed to do to get here.”
On the job, Russell is introduced to a child early in the judicial process, and if they relate well, they become very familiar with each other. The forensics involve close questioning to collect evidence. This can be harrowing, but Russell’s presence makes it easier. At a certain point, the adults may take a break, and the child and Russell are left alone together while being monitored by a video camera.
And here is an example of what can happen. A boy of 13 was unable to respond to questions, and a break was called. After a moment alone, he draped himself over Russell and began to stroke his ear, telling him how hard it was to talk about what had happened to him. A few minutes later he sat up straight as though fortified, and when the questioning resumed, he was able to tell his story.
Russell now works five days a week, with plenty of down time during the day to rest in a private place. He lives with the family of Kathy Rau, and on weekends gets to be just a dog and play with Kathy’s other two. On Mondays it’s back to work in his new career: A canine champion of juvenile justice and the agent of a quality of kindness beyond human.
Five other courthouse facility dogs trained by ADW–Emma, Cooper, Betty, Sally, and Link–are working in New Mexico. For more information about the organization, see www.assistancedogsofthewest.org.