by Beth Copeland
Some volunteers at the Child Advocacy Center have four legs, soft fur, and wagging tails.
In 2010 the CAC launched a new program using therapy dogs to meet and greet children and their families when they come to the CAC. Being with a therapy dog can help calm a child and reduce the child’s level of anxiety.
“It’s almost like having a security blanket, but it is a wonderful dog the child can pet,” says Jan Rogers, Forensic Interviewer. “Even just looking at the dog helps with overall stress reduction. The heart rate and breathing slows down. You can see the child’s neck and shoulder muscles relax.”
Being greeted by a therapy dog is not only beneficial for the child, but also helpful for the entire family.
“Recently, we’ve had some parents who are distraught and crying throughout the whole two hours when they are here,” says Megan Fitzgerald, Victim/Family Advocate. “I can foresee the therapy dogs being a source of comfort for the parents, too.”
Before the child comes for a forensic interview, Fitzgerald calls the parent to find out if the child is allergic to or afraid of dogs.
If a child is reluctant to be interviewed, the dog escorts the child down the hall to the door of the interview room. The dog does not go into the interview with the child, but waits for the child to come out when the interview is over.
“Sometimes children are reluctant to leave a dog,” says Roberta Pylate, a Therapy Dog International Evaluator. “I will let the child walk the dog [while Pylate holds the leash] to involve the child. The child can then say goodbye to the dog.”
“The presence of a therapy dog makes for better interviews,” Rogers says. “The child feels safe and secure.”
All therapy dogs utilized at the CAC must go through training and certification. Pylate has been a therapy dog handler for more than ten years and an evaluator for Therapy Dogs International since 2005.
All varieties of dogs can qualify as therapy dogs, including poodles, bull dogs, golden retrievers, and shelties. Pylate’s dog, Ripley, is a dachshund. The breed of the dog is not important, but it is essential that the dog have basic skills and a stable, calm temperament. The dog must not be highly excitable or fearful and must work well with children.
The therapy dogs’ handlers are all volunteers who bring the dogs to the CAC. “No monetary compensation is involved,” Pylate says. “But it’s a good feeling to know that you are having a positive effect.”
Jan Rogers and Megan Fitzgerald have seen the calming influence therapy dogs can have on children in distress.
“Children are more open to communicating horrific things that have happened to them by just being with the dog,” Rogers says.
“Sometimes a child will tell the animal instead of looking at and telling the forensic interviewer,” Fitzgerald says.
In some states therapy dogs are allowed to go to court with children when they testify. The child can look down at the dog and answer questions instead of looking at the defendant.
“Our hopes are that eventually we’ll be able to utilize therapy dogs in court,” Rogers says.
Pictures of the therapy dogs with their names are posted on the walls at the CAC.