K9 Support dog Coop plays an important role in helping children and adults who have experienced trauma from crime or violence.
Coop mainly works at the Centre Against Violence in Wangaratta and her handler and K9 Support founder Tessa Stow believes these sort of dogs could play a role in assisting people through the court system.
Ms Stow started K9 Support about three years ago with the goal of supporting others and since then has become an advocate for using support dogs in courts to assist victims of crime and violence.
In such a situation, people would be able to have a support dog they had worked with next to them during court cases to help keep them calm.
Ms Stow plans to again write to Victoria’s chief magistrate to ask if the dogs could have access to the courtrooms for training.
She has also started a Fair Agenda campaign called Get comfort dogs into Australian courts, which has more than 4000 signatures.
‘‘I’ve been on this road for about two years,’’ Ms Stow said.
‘‘I can’t go any further without actually being able to train Coop in the court room.
‘‘We need to train them in context, so we’d start off outside the court, then in an empty courtroom and slowly build them up.’’
Ms Stow said workers at the Centre Against Violence had found a 45 per cent decrease in children’s anxiety when they first met Coop, which showed the benefits support dogs could have on people.
‘‘It’s really helping the children to be able to tell their stories and once they start to feel safe — which they do with Coop because it’s unconditional love and she doesn’t judge them — they’re able to start to heal,’’ she said.
Sandplay Counselling and Education owner and K9 Support handler Neta Kirby instantly recognised the benefits of support dogs.
Ms Kirby was working at the Centre Against Sexual Assault in Shepparton and said she noticed a significant difference in children’s behaviour when they met Coop.
Because of this, she requested a support dog from Ms Stow and was given Connie.
‘‘I now have Connie with me in my private practice visiting schools and she comes to kindergarten with me because I’m a kindergarten teacher,’’ she said.
Ms Kirby said Connie was a soothing presence and in one situation had managed to put a woman who was quite upset at ease.
‘‘She came in and she was very, very anxious, Connie sat quietly in between us and every time she had tears Connie put her paw on her foot,’’ she said.
‘‘They’ve got this intuition to be able to deal with and help out.’’
Ms Kirby said this was one of the reasons she believed support dogs should be able to sit in court with victims of crime.
Ms Stow visited the Courthouse Dog Foundation in the United States last year and said it was amazing to hear the judges, prosecutors and victims talk about the positives of support dogs.
‘‘A young girl who was the victim of her father spoke about how she would never have been able to get through it without the dog. She had to sit through three trials before they found him guilty,’’ she said.
‘‘I know it works, there’s no doubt it works. It’s a matter of changing perception in the (Australian) judiciary system.
‘‘A lot of the victims who go to court have signs or symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome because of the trauma they’ve been through and what we’re doing is re-traumatising them by putting them through the justice system... but if we can soften that trauma and help them feel safe enough and at ease enough to be able to tell their story, then why aren’t we doing that?’’
You can sign the Fair Agenda campaign to get comfort dogs into Australian courts at www.fairagenda.org/comfortdogs