The little boy standing outside the Yolo County Courthouse was 6 years old when he saw his father get stabbed to death. He was scheduled to testify in court about what he had witnessed, but he didn’t look afraid.
The curly haired Labradoodle sitting by his side, Aloha, would be with him every step of the way. The boy slipped Aloha’s cross-body leash over his shoulders and then looked back at his mother.
“I’m ready. Can I take her?” he asked, before tugging lightly at the facility dog’s leash and marching into the courthouse without looking back.
Aloha was providing the boy, who will not be identified because he is a minor, comfort in a vulnerable moment, as she has for more than 100 crime victims.
In California, as long as a motion is made and the judge approves it, facility dogs such as Aloha may accompany individuals to court, where she is allowed to lie in silence behind the witness box out of sight of a jury. Facility dogs have been a part of California courtrooms at least since 2007, and the appellate courts confirmed the legality of such dogs in 2012. They can be found in at least 10 other California counties, and the Sacramento County District’s Attorney Office has Reggie, a standard poodle and fully trained comfort dog.
“Dogs serve a purpose that, frankly, humans can’t. If we could have 100 of them, I’d be happy,” said Jeff Reisig, Yolo County district attorney.
Reisig’s instincts are backed up by research from Brinda Jegatheesan, an associate professor in educational psychology at the University of Washington and vice president of development for the International Association of Human-Animal Interaction Organizations.
The therapeutic effects of socializing with dogs appear related to an increase in the hormone oxytocin, which diminishes negative emotions and can depend on a dog’s temperament and a person’s cultural background, according to Jegatheesan.
“It is such a pure relationship: He’s your friend, he’s your mentor and he teaches you to be strong and resilient,” Jegatheesan said. “Dogs are wonderful listeners. There is nothing a child can’t tell a dog. They sit still and listen. Dogs are nonjudgmental. We allow the child to decide what she wants to tell them or not.”
Aloha’s story began with Reisig, who identifies himself as a dog person. He became interested in the work of facility dogs about 2007, when Lori Raineri, a local activist and cancer survivor, offered to bring in her border collie, Daisy, to volunteer as a comfort dog for sexually abused children. After seeing Daisy’s successful work, Reisig introduced a full-time facility dog.
Laura Valdes, manager of the assistance program, was assigned to be the dog’s handler. Most programs training facility dogs have waiting lists as long as four years, and when the dogs are fully trained at age 2, they are assigned to handlers. Valdes wanted to be part of her dog’s training. She opted for the Gabby Jack Ranch in Carmichael, which breeds and trains dogs for people with disabilities.
“I decided I was going to take this project on as my own. It was going to be my dog,” Valdes said. Valdes picked Aloha out of a litter of nine puppies.
Some of Aloha’s early work came from comforting children whose parents were divorcing in family court. Three siblings presented Aloha with a final challenge before she graduated to working with crime victims.
“The children were very afraid. They didn’t want to talk to the mediator,” Valdes said.
As soon as Aloha entered the room, the mood changed.
“The two-year-old jumped on Aloha’s back, the four-year-old was pulling her ears and the five-year-old was fascinated with her tail.”
The results have been so positive that Reisig is looking into bringing in one more facility dog for the court’s Victim Assistance Program, which offers counseling, information assistance, victim advocacy, referral to assistance programs and other services to crime victims.
Court proceedings generally involve interviews with investigators and attorneys and, at times, testimony in front of a judge. Children tend to shut down, and some adults, especially those with special needs, have a hard time vocalizing their stories to investigators, Valdes said.
“Even if we don’t mean to, humans are super judgmental, but animals are not,” Valdes said. “(Aloha) will put her nose underneath someone’s hand to say, ‘Hey, I’m right here. Pet me,’ and they will open up.”
Aloha sees on average three clients a week, normally meeting with them in a private room at the Victim Assistance Program office. She accompanies Valdes to work Monday through Friday, but the moment they arrive home and her bright pink service vest comes off, Aloha becomes a typical, energetic pet. One of her favorite pastimes is making the family’s goats chase her.
“We live in 7 1/2 acres with chickens and donkeys. Aloha loves chasing the cat and picking on our 14-year-old Shih tzu, Coco,” Valdes said.
The courthouse’s love for Aloha came through in March, after she was diagnosed with immune-mediated polyarthritis, a deadly, painful disease in which the animal’s immune system attacks its joints.
The office helped organize fundraising events to pay for Aloha’s treatment and a visit with another veterinarian. She underwent a series of steroid treatments. Six months later, her illness is in remission. She lost several tufts of her curly, white fur, but, aside from that, Aloha is healthy and back at work full time.
“We were prepared to do anything to get Aloha back in the lineup,” Reisig said.
The Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office welcomed in August its first facility dog, Joann III (or JoJo), a golden Labrador, through Courthouse Dogs.