Louie is getting to be known around the county. He’s the Connections (formerly the Children’ Advocacy Center) new goodwill ambassador, mascot and champion communications helper. And, he just happens to be a dog—a very talented dog at that. It turns out that man’s best friend is often an abused child’s best comfort, too. Louie, is Connections’ new Canine Companions for Independence® Facility Dog.
Sue Bucy, Connections’ executive director and Louie’s primary handler, says “Louie’s role is to provide comfort and support to children,” who are referred to the center as victims of physical and sexual abuse.
As you might imagine, abused children can be reticent of opening up about their experience. Children’s forensic interviewers sometimes find it hard to get the informational testimony needed from a victim in order to prosecute abusers. That’s where Louie comes in. The gentle and attentive companion canine has been trained to provide comfort and confidence to children in a time of trauma and fear.
According to Bellevue Washington’s Courthouse Dogs Foundation, courthouse dogs are “legally neutral companions for witnesses during the investigation and prosecution of crimes; these dogs help the most vulnerable witnesses feel willing and able to describe what happened. The dogs also provide emotional support to participants in family court proceedings and in specialty/treatment courts.”
Louie, says Nina Taylor, who is part of Connections’ multi-disciplinary team, “just takes the tension off why they’re here.”
“Louie spends a little bit of time with the child beforehand, then comes into the forensic interview,” Sue explains. The dog may also accompany the child into the courtroom to further provide emotion support, strength and courage.
Louie was added to the staff of Connections after Sue went to California for two weeks of co-training with the dog at Canine Companions for Independence® this past April. She returned with Louie May 6 and since then, he’s already helped upwards of fifty children.
“It’s made a huge difference,” says Sue. “We’re starting to discover that—with us [and] not just the kids—that [Louie] seems sensitive to emotion.”
Nina tells a story that exemplifies Louie’s emotional awareness. Sitting silently on a couch in the Connections interview room a child, closed to sharing her pain, strokes the canine companion at her side. As the interviewer gently prods the girl with inquiry, tears roll down her face and her shoulders begin to heave. Louie, lying beside the girl, looks up and licks her tears away. The girl wraps her arms around Louie and holds him in a tight embrace. Once the two connect, she opens up with her story.
Similar stories abound—not just with Louie, but with “courthouse canines” across the state, throughout the U.S. and elsewhere internationally. You can find out more about standards and certification at the Courthouse Dogs Foundation website.
Although Louie helps in communication and brings comfort in the courtroom, he’s also bringing awareness to the classroom. Sometimes Louie gets to travel to schools, civic groups and other gatherings to represent the center, show off his abilities (he knows about fifty commands and “tricks,” many of which are service oriented) and create awareness. When not “working,” Louie likes to hang out at Connections or the prosecutor’s office and sleep or practice his service techniques with his companion, Sue. When the “vest is off” she says he pretty much gets to be just a dog most of the time.
Louie has been highly trained and certified and enjoys play as well as performance; he can do regular dog tricks like stay, lay and shake hands, but can also open and close doors, retrieve and carry items, play hide and seek, even bowl and do card tricks. He doesn’t speak on command, though. Sue, who trains for thirty minutes each day with Louie, says, “he’s a better listener than he is a talker” and that he takes direction well because he knows she’s the pack leader. She and Louie are “attached,” she says. “I hold him like a baby talk to him.”
According to the Courthouse Dog Foundation, “facility dogs are working dogs that are specially chosen because of their calm demeanor and ability to work in a high stress environment thereby decreasing the risk of creating legal issues. [They are] professionally trained assistance dog[s], suitable for providing quiet companionship to vulnerable individuals in legal settings without causing any disruption of the proceedings. When their work day is over they go home with their primary handler and are ‘off duty.’”
“Our community [of Montesano] is getting pretty familiar with him,” says Sue. “People recognize him and know he’s here and available for children—and parents—in trauma.” Louie is soon to become an honorary Rotary Club member and Sue hopes to get him out in the community more in the coming year.