Therapy Dogs

0 Comments Posted by tcahvet in Videos and More on Monday, August 5th, 2013.



By, Bill Johnson (As seen in Parklander Magazine)

When Judge Susan Lebow calls her courtroom to order, you might see a dog sitting quietly before her. The dog has an unusual role in a courtroom. It is there to be a source of comfort for a troubled child experiencing the stress of a legal proceeding in family court.

Most of these children in family court are in foster care. Many have been abused or neglected. They become central figures in a legal battle and need all the help they can get. The children find themselves with Susan Lebow, a judge in the Juvenile Dependency Division of the Judicial Circuit Court in Fort Lauderdale.

“The beneficial effects of therapy dogs are well established,” says Debra Berger, executive director of Canine Assisted Therapy, Inc., a non-profit organization that has managed other types of canine therapy programs since 2009.

At the court’s request, the organization joined forces with Voices for Children and the guardian ad litem program to develop the role for dogs in the court. (Ad litem is Latin in reference to a guardian’s role in a legal proceeding.)

The guardians are court-appointed volunteers who speak for the children involved in these cases. They learn about the child’s situation and environment, write reports and recommendations to the judge, and serve as the child’s advocate. They accompany the child to court. Now, the child may have a dog in court as well.

For the time being, Judge Lebow is the only judge testing the role of dogs in family court in this pilot program. “We want to start out small,” says the canine program’s Debra Berger. “We’re taking baby steps; one court room at a time.”

Such a program can’t be developed overnight. Berger is proud of the quality of the organization’s programs. “One of the things most important to the court was the highest criteria,” she said.

That means all dogs must undergo obedience training certified by the American Kennel Club. They are tested for personality and temperament, and the way they interact with children. Not every dog is suited for this role. Before being matched with a child, the dog and its therapy team carries out a 30 day program in a skilled nursing home. Only then is a dog ready to help a child.

Berger explains there are two distinctly different roles for these dogs. Some will be used exclusively in the courtroom. The child’s interaction with the dog may relieve some of the stress and exert a calming influence.

Other dogs will not go to court, but will accompany a guardian when meeting with the child, visiting the child’s home, or going somewhere.

The important and challenging role of the guardian requires considerable training — 30 hours to learn what they may face and how to handle their responsibilities on behalf of children.

In July, two dogs had been trained for their therapeutic role and several others were in training. The demand for them is high. “We could use many more,” Berger says. More guardians are needed, too.
Good therapy dogs come in all shapes, sizes and breeds, Berger says. Most of the dogs used in other programs came from shelters and range from a two-pound Yorkie to a 150-pound Leonberger, which looks much like a lion.


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