June 29, 2011 — -- It was a tense moment in a Poughkeepsie courtroom when a 15-year-old girl who had been the victim of sexual abuse for four years was asked to point out the man who had violated her. The girl seemed to freeze.
Then a furry snout and wet brown nose came up over the stand and nudged her arm.
The girl's demeanor changed and she was able to point out the man in the courtroom and continue with her testimony. The man was found guilty and is facing 25 years to life in prison.
The snout that helped the girl overcome the difficult moment on June 13 belongs to Rose, affectionately called Rosie, an 11-year-old golden retriever service dog whose specialty is comforting people.
This is the first time in New York State that a service dog has sat on the witness stand during a trial.
"My heart was in my throat," said Sherry Cookinham the unit supervisor for the Children's Home in Poughkeepsie that has been helping the teenage girl. "I knew at that moment that Rosie was doing her job and the little girl was going to be okay."
The Children's Home had heard about court dogs being used in other states and thought that it could be perfect in this sensitive case and began exploring their options. One of the people they reached out to was Dale Picard, who co-founded an organization called ECAD, Educated Canines Assisting with Disabilities, with his wife Lu. ECAD is a non-profit organization in New York and Connecticut that teaches troubled teenagers who attend alternative high schools how to train the dogs.
The process helps the teens with discipline and responsibility while training service dogs. They have trained over 200 dogs that have gone on to work in a dozen states.
When Cookinham contacted Dale Picard, he knew he had the perfect dog for the task.
"I noticed really early as [Rosie] was growing up that she was special," said Picard. "She could calm kids down and kids with bad issues would gravitate towards her."
Picard has been Rose's owner and trainer since she was born. He has been trying to get dogs into courtrooms in New York for two years and had been told many times that it would never happen because it would be distracting and could sway the jury.
"People get loud and scream [in court] and it shuts children down. If we could provide them a dog in court, it would make a big difference in how they respond," Picard said. "When the dog gets the person to move, it changed the person's state of mind and helps them to open up and talk."
When Picard was contacted for this case, he was eager to do whatever it took to get Rosie into court. Over the next six weeks, Rosie spent time at the Children's Home with the victim, with the judge and inside the courthouse.
"I'm a big proponent that if there's something we can do to help a victim that's legal, we have an obligation to do it," said Kristine Hawlk, the senior district attorney involved in the case. "Rosie was totally unobtrusive. She did exactly what she was supposed to do."
Defense Attorney David Martin objected to the dog's presence. He did not return calls for comment.
Lori Stella is the clinical social worker who cared for the young victim and testified to get permission for Rosie to come to court.
Making Rosie Inconspicuous
"A lot of time when children have been exposed to trauma or sexual abuse, they have a hard time expressing themselves," Stella said. "And then they're put in a courtroom full of strangers, being asked the most intrusive questions and having to sit across from somebody who perpetrated the abuse."
Stella said she noticed an immediate change in the young girl from the day she first met Rosie. "I could physically see her anxiety diminishing," Stella said.
Measures were taken to make sure Rosie was as inconspicuous as possible.
The dog was behind the witness stand and could not be seen by those sitting in the gallery, except when she poked her head up to nudge the victim and the judge gave very specific instructions to the jury that they were not to make any interpretations about why the dog was there.
There are hopes that this could become a more common practice in New York and possibly go beyond children to victims of violent abuse or post-traumatic stress disorder.
"Anybody that's been traumatized and wants to shut down—it doesn't matter if it's an adult or child—the dog will help," said Rosie's owner Dale Picard.
For Rosie, this may be the beginning of a new career. The Children's Home has a case next month where two young girls may have to testify in the murder of their mother and, if so, the Home says Rosie will definitely be requested for another day in court.