Creature comforts: Tessa Stow has trained her dog Coop to support domestic violence victims as they testify in court. Picture: CHLOE SMITH
Creature comforts: Tessa Stow has trained her dog Coop to support domestic violence victims as they testify in court. Picture: CHLOE SMITH

A dog's day in court

Sometimes comfort was found in the weight of the lead in their hand, with its coarse fibres that they could knead with their thumb as they recounted memories they would rather suppress.

For others strength was mustered from the depths of those non-judgmental eyes, or from her warmth as she lay draped across their feet. Some would reach down to touch her jet-black fur before they could continue.

Four-legged Coop has made waves since she arrived at Victoria's Office of Public Prosecutions, the criminal justice system outfit responsible for prosecuting the state's most heinous criminals.

The three-year-old Labrador's arrival in September at the OPP's headquarters in Lonsdale St, Melbourne, heralded the start of a new way of supporting crime victims and witnesses while giving evidence during a trial, a solitary and often harrowing task either done in the courtroom or, for those unable to face the accused, via videolink in a separate room known as a remote witness facility.

Coop is officially known as a "support dog", and as part of a 12-week trial (an Australian first) it was her role to provide comfort when it was wanted to the most vulnerable and traumatised victims and witnesses who opted to give evidence remotely.

So successful was the pilot program that solicitor for Public Prosecutions John Cain has announced it will be extended to run this year and expanded to ensure Coop is available two days each week, up from half a day during last year's trial. She is also expected to make an appearance at remote witness facilities in regional courts for the first time when the County and Supreme courts go on circuit.

Her acceptance into a legal fraternity steeped in tradition did not come easily. It was hard-earned by two persistent dog lovers in the OPP's learning and development specialist Julie Morrison - "my title should really be crazy dog lady", she says - and dog trainer and counsellor Tessa Stow.

Before she arrived at the OPP, Julie had worked with her dogs in hospitals - where they were used as therapy dogs - and in kindergartens and schools running a responsible pet education program.

"I knew first-hand what dogs can do," she says, "so I always had that in the back of my mind, and then I read about other countries using dogs in court and thought, 'Why don't we try something?' "

She mulled over the idea before going online, where she found Tessa, who at the time was working towards the same goal by training dogs and using them to help family violence and sexual assault victims at Wangaratta's Centre Against Violence and Shepparton's Goulburn Valley Centre Against Sexual Assault.

"My goal was always to get dogs into court, it was just a matter of meeting the right people," says Tessa, a councillor and former veterinary nurse who also runs a Limousin stud with husband Scott at Warrenbayne, in North East Victoria.

The pair met in July and set to work formulating a plan to get Coop into the criminal justice system. Julie started by winning over the OPP's dog-lovers then made a formal proposal to senior management. It came as a surprise when John Cain, who confesses he is not a dog lover, gave them the green light for a 12-week trial.

"John looked at me and said, 'I suppose I can't think of a reason why we shouldn't do it', and he's been behind the program ever since," Julie says.

Despite Tessa and Julie's having met only three months before the trial started, this was no hastily hatched plan on Tessa's behalf, but something years in the making.

Tessa is wary of going into too much detail, but says it was after her own experience "going through the system" that she bought Coop as an eight-week-old pup and started training her to help victims give their evidence.

"It was seeing what a traumatising system it is and how it relies on stress to get people to tell their stories," she says.

IT TOOK two years of intensive training for Coop to reach a level Tessa likens to that of an assistance dog (a test Coop has passed). She now responds to strangers, not only to sit, lie and other essential commands, but to react with compassion, be it licks, pawing or cuddles, to visible signs of distress such as crying, rocking and scratching.

From all accounts, her role has been a resounding success. "It's the physical connection they're reacting to. We had one lady who took her shoes off so she could feel Coop at her feet; another said just watching her sleep had a calming effect on them," Julie says.

The next step is to get Coop into court (she is restricted to remote witness facilities), a practice widespread in the US where it was pioneered by the Courthouse Dogs Foundation in Washington 15 years ago. The foundation's executive director, Celeste Walsen, says there are 155 dogs working at courts across 35 US states.

There is little research into the effectiveness of "support dogs" but its take-up internationally gives the concept credence. Celeste says Canada's legal system has 31 dogs, there is a courthouse dog program under way in Chile and the organisation is teaching this year in Ireland, Finland and France.

John says there are no short-term plans to allow Coop into court, "but I feel comfortable it will be an ongoing part of the way the OPP assists victims".

He fears moving too quickly will risk derailing the program. Some have raised concerns a dog could unduly influence a jury. But Julie says any benefit a dog brings to minimise the trauma someone is going through should mitigate any possibility of prejudice.

"We're trying to do two things," Julie says. "Support people who are trying to go through a traumatic process, and put the bad people away. If because of having a dog people are better able to give their evidence because they're in a better emotional space, then that can help get a conviction, and that's good for the community as well."

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