Sometimes, children have to testify in court cases, and the process is terrifying. A city in Ontario has recently acquired a court dog to help ease their anxiety and fears.
In 2015, The Calgary Police Service introduced Hawk, a black lab, as a court assistance dog for part of a child sex-assault case. Hawk gave comfort and allowed the child witnesses to open up more in a very intimidating situation. Since, a specially trained facility dog, Merel, has joined the ranks to become the second ‘court dog’ in Canada, and the first in Ontario.
Merel is an 18-month-old black Lab/Bernese Mountain mix who was trained with National Service Dogs in Cambridge Ontario. Facility dogs cost over $30,000 to train for their very specific duties, and was donated by National Service Dogs to help assist children and other emotionally fragile witnesses in court cases. Merel has been taught to sit with a child witness and put her head in their lap, or even lie down with the child to comfort him or her.
Merel’s handler, Rachel Crawford, is a program coordinator for the Child Witness Program at the London Family Court Clinic, and simply tells Merel, “Merel, visit!” and Merel will go quickly and quietly to the child who needs some extra assurance. Crawford says that often, children involved in court cases are those who have experienced significant, traumatic events, such as robbery or sexual assault, and that being involved in the testifying is sometimes just as traumatic as the actual event they suffered through.
Crawford said that the child who is testifying is only responsible for telling the truth, even though they often feel the weight of the entire trial, and Merel helps bring a calming presence to the children as they tell their stories in testifying. Crawford said her job as a preparer for children in court has seen tremendous change, now that Merel is part of the preparation process and offers the children comfort and support as they get ready to and then actually testify in court.
Merel’s presence is not only making an impact on children involved in trials. Justice Eleanor Schnall, who was appointed a judge in London’s legal system in 1991, said that a facility dog like Merel had the effects of a live teddy bear and seemed to immediately relax all people, not just children.
The courthouse can be intimidating, and dogs like Merel help make that environment less imposing. Justice Schnall says that there is a need for more ‘Merels’ and that her presence is a gift to help the children who need her most. Additionally, she brings some joy to staff members of the courthouse who often are subjected to heavy day-to-day hearings, and is a win-win for the whole building and process.
When Merel is not working (or lounging in her big dog bed at the courthouse, waiting to comfort), she is a ‘regular’ pet and goes home with Crawford each day. Crawford says she doesn’t know how she did her job before Merel, and even though she’s only been on the job for a few weeks, she’s already aided six child victims in sad, adult trials.
All in a day’s work for sweet, honorable Merel.