Canine coaxes child witnesses at courthouse

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Service Dogs Helps Children Testify

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

With a simple command, Merel can change the course of a child's courtroom testimony.

The 18-month-old black Labrador is a facility animal from National Service Dogs in Cambridge, Ontario, and when she is told "Merel, visit," she carefully rests her head in a child witness's lap.

"It's crazy. I can't even imagine doing this work without her now that I've had her around," Rachel Crawford, the child witness program coordinator for the last three years at the London Family Court Clinic where Merel works, told The Dodo. "The kids are much more willing to engage with us; they look forward to coming to the courthouse to see Merel. They are much quicker to engage in conversation about a dog they have or a dog they know, which builds rapport and allows us to have further conversations about court and what they are there to actually talk about."

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Merel is the first dog working in this capacity in the city. The program is modeled after one Crawford had heard about elsewhere.

A dog named Suzie works in a juvenile court in Louisiana, and Murch helps children testify in a Tennessee courthouse, according to The Dodo.

Merel was trained for almost two years to prepare her for her working life. The dog's training and preparation to get her working is valued at about $30,000. The yearly costs for the dog are about $5,000. The dog is provided by the group for free, however donations are needed to help pay the yearly costs of owning a dog.

Merel sees one or two children a day, according to CBC. And she is expected to work with about 150 children year.

"She's just a very calming presence," Crawford told CBC. "She doesn't move quickly, she doesn't make any noise.  She's just there to provide comfort and support when they're having to come and face the task of testifying."

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