Dog trained to calm victims starts work in county courts
by Eddie Burkhalter
eburkhalter@annistonstar.com
Oct 18, 2013 | 5347 views |  0 comments | 63 63 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Calhoun County Family Court Judge Laura Phillips pins a badge on Foster at a ceremony Friday. Handling Foster is Jesica Fleming. (Photo by Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star)
Calhoun County Family Court Judge Laura Phillips pins a badge on Foster at a ceremony Friday. Handling Foster is Jesica Fleming. (Photo by Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star)
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At 1, “Foster” may seem young for a career in a courtroom, but he’s already racked up the months of schooling that entitle him to be there.

District Judge Laura Phillips swore Foster — her own chocolate Labrador — into office Friday inside her Calhoun County courtroom, carefully affixing a shiny new badge to his collar.

Foster is the state’s first dog trained to provide comfort in courthouses, said Jessica Fleming, a trainer with iK9, a company that recently partnered with the Auburn University Canine Detection Training Center at McClellan.

That means, Fleming explained, the dog is allowed to stay around the courthouse and make a stressful thing like testifying in court a little easier for children and adult victims of abuse. The training center at McClellan is otherwise known for turning out highly specialized dogs that can sniff explosives from great distances. Fleming trained Foster, the first such therapy dog trained there,

Though not officially a “courthouse dog” — a term reserved for animals trained at facilities accredited by members of Assistance Dogs International — Foster will work in similar means, staying by the side of children or adults while they’re at the courthouse waiting to give testimony or are just standing by to emotionally support those who are.

Fleming ran Foster through a series of quick high-fives and low-fives in a hallway outside Phillips office Friday. She held out her hand and he placed his paw atop and kept it there. He can sit and lie down on command.

Those tricks can take children’s minds away from the worry of being inside a courtroom, she said.

“They’re not judgmental. They’re very easy to be around and talk to,” Fleming said.

Paul Hammond, director at iK9, said he first trained therapy dogs for a U.S. military hospital in Iraq. Their job then was to train explosives-detection dogs, but he got the idea to teach the more passive dogs how to put at ease children being treated in wartime hospitals.

It costs anywhere from $15,000 to $25,000 to train a dog like Foster, Hammond said. The center trained Foster for free, Phillips said.

He’ll give children something to think about, Phillips said. They’ll rub his ears or play with him and feel more secure, she said.

Foster’s story — from a shelter to a courtroom — is an unlikely one. He was picked up at six months old from the Calhoun County Animal Shelter by Anniston attorney Peggy Miller. Miller posted his photo on Facebook to find him a home. Phillips responded.

Phillips was only going to be a foster parent to him for a short while — hence the name — but that changed soon enough.

“We loved on him and there was no way I could give him away,” Phillips said.

At first she wanted simple obedience training for the energetic puppy, but she learned of courthouse dogs and what they can do to help calm the children in her courtroom.

That’s when she contacted John Pierce, associate director of the Training Center, and asked him what he thought of training Foster.

“Paul had a lot of experience and background in it, and so it was the natural step for us to take,” Pierce said.

A Seattle dog named Jeter was the first such dog trained for the work. That was a decade ago. Forty-nine dogs are now working in courtrooms in 17 states, said Ellen O’Neill-Stephens, a Seattle attorney and founder of Courthouse Dogs Foundation.

Ed Akers works in the drug lab for Calhoun County drug court. He’s also Foster’s handler, and had to go through training at the center to learn how to watch Foster’s behavior and get him to do those stress-relieving tricks.

Though Foster’s graduation was Friday, he’s already been called in twice to help guide children through court hearings.

“Some will just sit there and pet him the whole time they’re in there,” Akers said. “He’s really good with kids. Very calm.”

Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.

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