County first in line to begin service to calm witnesses and victims in a courtroom setting

by: COURTESY PHOTO - Yamhill County's district attorney will use a courthouse dog to ease the courtroom tension for crime victims and witnesses.This summer, the courtrooms in Yamhill County may see a new and unusual face alongside District Attorney Brad Berry after his office received word in December that they are in line to receive Oregon’s first courthouse dog.

Courthouse dogs are bred and trained by Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit organization in Santa Rosa, Calif. In 18 months of training, the dogs learn more than 50 commands and are trained to help disabled individuals. After training, dogs are paired with a handler and, together, they are run through a second, two-week-long training regimen. At that point the dogs are worth more than $25,000, but there is no charge to the district attorney’s office. Once in a courtroom, a dog from CCI will sit beside a victim or witness, providing a calm and attentive presence in a stressful situation.

“It takes just a few minutes of observing one of these amazing dogs with a victim to understand what an extraordinary benefit it is,” Berry said. “Watching as the dog lays its head on a child’s lap — the child almost unconsciously stroking it — while talking about difficult topics, leaves no doubt as to the soothing effect this can have.”

Now on the wait list, the district attorney’s office is in the final stages of a process that started nearly two years ago. “We began with an initial meeting with a prosecutor from King County, Wash., who was involved in bringing a facility dog to their system,” Berry said.

Berry’s office pitched the idea and its merits to local law enforcement officials, child abuse investigators and the courts. With support from all three groups, they presented the idea to the Board of Commissioners in July and received an unanimous endorsement. This was followed by two applications, a phone interview and a meeting in Santa Rosa. In December, with the application process behind them, Berry’s office received word that they had been placed on the waiting list and could receive a dog sometime between May and August.

As the designated canine handler, Yamhill County victims advocate Sarah Grabner traveled to CCI headquarters for the meeting and, on approval, will travel again to Santa Rosa to participate in the two-week training program. There, CCI will teach Grabner to handle the dog, as well as ensure that the she and the dog are a good match.

“We have worked diligently to show CCI not only the need for such an amazing animal in Yamhill County,” Berry said. “But that we are ready to receive one and immediately put it to use with victims of crime, especially the most vulnerable victims in our system.”

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