SANDPOINT — The Bonner County Prosecutor’s Office is adopting a program designed to help soothe the jangled nerves of children and other vulnerable witnesses who are called to testify in court proceedings.
The program involves allowing a trained and certified assistance dog to accompany witnesses on the stand.
“It’s a very difficult situation when they come in and have to testify in court,” said Prosecutor Louis Marshall. “The dog is well-trained, quiet and comes in and sits down underneath the witness stand. The jury never even knows the dog is there.”
The courthouse dog program began in Seattle in 2003 and was adopted in Ada County in 2010 with a donated yellow Labrador/golden retriever mix called Sunday.
Sunday was bred and trained by Canine Companions for Independence in Santa Rosa, Calif. Sunday was the first courthouse dog in Idaho.
Bonner County’s courthouse dog will also come from Canine Companions and will be the second one in Idaho, according to Peggy Frye, coordinator of the prosecutor’s office’s victim witness unit.
Frye said she came across the program about a year ago, after working with a very young child who had been abused and was just too scared to talk. During her investigation into the program, Frye found there is scientifically proven research that petting an animal or simply being in the presence of one produces short-term decreases in blood pressure and/or heart rate.
Dogs can also help people with their social skills and curb feelings of loneliness, isolation, depression and low self esteem.
Frye also hopes to use the dog in specialty courts, such as Drug Court, Juvenile Court and an in-the-works Domestic Violence Court. In addition to being used in the courts, prosecutor’s office and by law enforcement, Frye intends to have the dog visit Kinderhaven, Juvenile Detention and local schools for educational purposes.
The dog is being provided free of charge and comes with a lifetime insurance policy from Canine Companions.
“The cost to Bonner County taxpayers will be very little considering what we will get in return,” said Frye, who will be looking after the dog.
Frye said she was sold on the concept when she watched a video of a forensic interview with a child who was reluctant to tell of his ordeal, which can be typical. The interviewer finally asked the child if he would be willing to tell the dog what happened to him if she left the room.
“Once she was gone, the child leaned into the dog and told the dog what had happened to him. This was probably one of the most impressive interviews I have seen and it was done by a dog,” said Frye.