By Dr. Scott Wilson, Director of Wildrose Service Companions
We are excited to announce that Wildrose “Irie” is well on her way to becoming the first “Courtroom Dog” in Mississippi.
This summer Wildrose Irie, along with her trainer/handler Bess Bruton, began exploring her new service career in cooperation with social services, police, prosecutors, and judges here in Lafayette County and Oxford. In this particular job, Irie will be known as the “Facility Dog” in the courtroom. She hopes to ultimately serve as a victim’s advocate and help the prosecutors reduce some of the fear and anxiety that so often influences mere mortals sitting in the witness box. Beyond the witness box, Irie may be utilized by investigators, prosecutors and other legal professionals to help victims find the calm confidence required to assist with their own complex legal process. Therein lies one of the major challenges for every facility dog, the handler may be someone other than the owner/trainer/primary care-giver. Every handler will of course be trained and evaluated to work with Irie. Except in those very rare cases where the facility dog is owned, trained, and handled by a household that includes a victim advocate, forensic interviewer, detective, prosecutor, guardian ad litem, therapist, and other legal professionals, these exceptional facility dogs may have to comfortably work with handlers that do not live with their pack. Irie has already been introduced to most of the many professionals she will encounter as a facility dog. It is worth noting that Wildrose Irie is already a finished Gun Dog, a Trail Rated Adventure Dog, and an accomplished Therapy Dog.
Irie may be pursuing a novel career choice but our multi-talented Wildrose Labradors have already worked successfully through all of the component responsibilities required of a facility dog. Wildrose companions travel with us along every pathway of human life. There are Wildrose Gundogs, Wildrose Adventure Dogs, Wildrose Scent Specialists, Wildrose Service Dogs, Wildrose Emotional Support Dogs, Wildrose Therapy Dogs, and now Irie has her sights set on being the first Wildrose “Facility Dog” in a Mississippi courtroom and beyond. The evolution of the human-canine connection enables these remarkable, properly trained companions to help in ways that science and human intervention simply fail to match. All of our canine service companions fill a special role and they must overcome special challenges in their training.
American Disabilities Act: Service Animals
The ADA defines “service animals” as dogs that are individually trained to work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples include guiding the blind, alerting the deaf, protecting a person having a seizure, alerting a diabetic to dangerous chemical levels, reminding a mentally challenged person to take medication, calming a person with PTSD during an attack, and on and on. We have all heard about or seen service dogs performing their many unique duties. Strangers are admonished to avoid touching or distracting a service dog so the animal can stay focused on the task at hand. Some of these service companions stay on duty 24/7.
Emotional Support Animals
In addition to service dogs, there are “emotional support animals,” these too are typically dogs. Only a licensed mental health professional can prescribe an ESA for an emotionally disabled person. An ESA is not required to perform any specific task other than affection and companionship. You may have seen these ESAs travelling with their owner on commercial airlines. Responsible ESA owners train their companions to behave in a predictable manner in public; however, there are no federal requirements for these animals to be registered or periodically evaluated for basic obedience and predictability. ESA’s, like service dogs, may be on duty for extended periods of time and strangers should avoid touching or distracting these working dogs.
Some owner/handlers share their companion with other humans through animal-assisted interventions (AAI) that may involve activity (AAA), education (AAE), and/or therapy (AAT). These interventions primarily involve friendly dogs handled by an experience primary care owner. Whether helping through activity, education, or therapy, these dogs serve to relieve stress, anxiety, and fear, while enhancing feelings of comfort, calm, and well-being. The intervention dog owner/handler may share their companion with individuals or groups of people. A therapy dog team routinely encounters complete strangers who are usually more excited to engage with the dog then the handler. Registered therapy dogs are trained and periodically evaluated to ensure they react predictably in all situations. Therapy dogs normally benefit from the presence of their primary care handler who is also trained and periodically evaluated for appropriate behavior and handling. One common misconception holds that any non-aggressive family pet is automatically ready for interventions and nothing could be further from the truth. The family environment may be well known and tolerated by most dogs but extensive socialization is required to prepare dogs for atypical environments, behaviors, vocalizations, sights, sounds, smells, and movements to dramatically reduce inappropriate behavior. For the dog, the combination of new environments, excessive petting, and some under restrained exuberance will eventually lead to over stimulation, stress, exhaustion, and unpredictable behavior. Therapy dog visits are routinely limited to a maximum of 2 hours.
The Facility Dog
Which brings us to a whole new challenge, the Facility Dog. The facility dog is a mix of service, emotional support, and intervention talents with the added complexity of multiple handlers. While not technically a service companion, the facility dog helps people suffering from a disabling or uncontrollable state like fear or anxiety. As is the case for an emotional support dog, affection and companionship may be extended for many hours. Like a therapy dog, the facility dog provides service to someone other than their owner/handler. The United States Courthouse DogsÒ Foundation estimates 2 years for facility dog training. Assistance Dogs International sets the training standards for facility dogs and in some instances, they are even as rigorous as our own Wildrose training for dogs in public environments. From the ADI list of training standards for example, “The facility dog should demonstrate basic obedience skills by responding to voice and/or hand signals for sitting, staying in place, lying down, walking in a controlled position near the facilitator and coming to the facilitator when called.”
Wildrose Irie: Mississippi’s First Certified Facility Dog
As you may correctly interpret from these images, Irie responds to voice and/or hand signals and she waits patiently for instructions even when her handler must move about the courtroom. In her first visit to court she was introduced to the receptionist, court recorder, and bailiff 30 minutes prior to the start. The judge, bailiff, and recorder moved in and out of the rather large room through their own special entrance but everyone else entered through the main entrance and walked right by a calmly sleeping Irie. She ignored a wheelchair, a walker and an older gentleman with a cane who passed a dozen times or more. Nearly everyone smiled serenely when they noticed and walked by the sleeping Irie. When the action paused momentarily, several more of the legal professionals including attorneys from both sides of the aisle stopped to greet Irie. The orange tennis shoe planted beside Irie belongs to a person she never met. In the middle of the proceedings he sat down beside Irie and acknowledged the handler but merely smiled kindly at the sleeping dog. Sometime later one of the lawyers approached the owner of this orange shoe and struck up an extended conversation while standing next to Irie. The young dog opened her eyes momentarily then went back to sleep. After the four-hour session ended we introduced Irie to the judge who, along with generous smile, commented that he wished his granddaughter was here to meet Irie. We still have several more hoops to jump through before Irie graduates from law school but she has rocked her introduction.
Irie, like so many Wildrose Labradors, goes well beyond accepting new people. She understands her job through patient, repetitive training and she is comfortable interacting with handlers because she enjoys truly her role in the social scheme of things. She has already trained in the field with multiple handlers and she has accompanied different handlers for training on visits to an assisted living facility. She has absolutely no fear of gun fire so loud noises are not a problem. She is comfortable around other dogs and even really big dogs (aka horse is courtesy of the Oxford Mounted Patrol)! She occasionally exercises caution when she encounters excessive or rapid movement that she has never seen before but Bess is working through every imaginable circumstance one-by-one until Irie has a chance to record these events in her memory.
As a facility dog, Irie may be asked by a victim’s advocate or therapist to help break the ice
with a client. As referenced on the Courthouse DogsÒ website, one of the successful animal intervention methods employed is to have the dog retrieve something. Irie is a retrieving maven! She doesn’t just retrieve something, she retrieves “anything” you ask her to retrieve and gently holds “anything” until the handler tells her to release by voice or hand signal. In summary, Irie has skills, she has talent, and she really knows her vehicles.