Court witnesses get by with help from four-legged friends at Office of Public Prosecutions

CALMING CREATURES: K9 Support trainer Tessa Stow is training more puppies to work with therapy dog Coop (left). Picture: MARK JESSER
CALMING CREATURES: K9 Support trainer Tessa Stow is training more puppies to work with therapy dog Coop (left). Picture: MARK JESSER

Dredging up memories of traumatic assaults and sexual abuse in order to give evidence in court can be difficult for victims of crime, but Coop the black labrador is making the task a little more bearable.

The Benalla-trained therapy dog has produced “outstanding” results in the first nine weeks of a 12-week trial at the Office of Public Prosecutions.

She and K9 Support trainer Tessa Stow have been travelling to Melbourne every Tuesday where the dog joins witnesses inside a room where they give evidence on camera, broadcast into a courtroom.

Public prosecutions solicitor John Cain told The Border Mail that people were often nervous or uneasy about court, but the presence of Coop, who understands when they need physical contact as comfort, has made the process easier.

“The program has been an outstanding success,” he said.

“It’s making it a bit easier for witnesses to relax to give evidence.”

Solicitors have found the witnesses with Coop’s support have been able to get through their evidence more quickly, without the need for breaks.

Feedback given to the OPP was that Coop was a “life saver” and some people who were reluctant to give evidence at all had changed their minds after being told they could have a dog by their side.

“She’s a terrific dog – very calm, very relaxed and that’s the key to a lot of her success,” Mr Cain said.

“Anything we can do to make the process of giving evidence easier for the victims, we’re happy to try.”

He said he would support the program continuing after the trail, but understood it came down to budget constraints.

The OPP said it would review the program after the 12 weeks were completed before making a decision on the future.

Ms Stow said she was training another golden labrador in Warrenbayne in the hopes the program could be expanded to two days per week from next year, following the positive response to Coop.

“If they respond in a way where they’re very upset, she’ll sit up and lick their hand or put her head in their lap,” she said.

“Part of it is intuition, part of it is trained.”

K9 Support therapy dogs have also been used with success by organisations such as Centre Against Violence in the North East and Ms Stow hopes other courts will see the benefits and take on the program.

“The people who the dogs are with have already been traumatised and the justice system retraumatises them, so what we’re trying to do is soften the impact,” she said.