Courthouse dog helps Conway-area victims

An AP Member Exchange shared by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

CONWAY, Ark. (AP) — Her name is Barb II. Her fur is white with a golden streak down her back and a bit of golden fluff on her tail. Her ears are golden, too.

At about 70 pounds, the 2½ -year-old Barb is three-fourths Labrador retriever and one-fourth golden retriever. And she’s a working dog who goes on the clock when one of her handlers — two employees of the Faulkner County prosecuting attorney’s victim services division — puts a blue, yellow, black and white vest on her.

At that point, Barb goes from a tail-wagging dog with a chew toy in her mouth to an all-business therapist of sorts, the kind that listens and doesn’t talk or judge.

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The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette ( ) reports that her job is comforting people, especially scared children, who must be questioned and sometimes testify about graphic details in trials dealing with rape, murder, abuse and more. Depending on the place, that comfort can range from playing with the child to simply lying still while the child strokes her repeatedly during a stressful interview.

Bred and trained by Canine Companions for Independence in Oceanside, California, Barb joined the prosecutor’s office in February. She’s Arkansas’ first courthouse dog; she even sports a Razorback collar. And she’s already been sitting in on lengthy court sessions.

“She will sleep the entire time and snore” as her feet bounce slightly, perhaps from dreams of chasing rabbits, said Susan Bradshaw, Barb’s primary handler and director of victim services for the state’s 20th Judicial District, which includes Faulkner, Van Buren and Searcy counties.

Barb has helped adults, too.

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The prosecutor’s office had been having trouble persuading a borderline agoraphobic woman to stop by the county courthouse to answer investigators’ questions. Told that Barb would be there to welcome her, the woman finally ventured out of her home and visited the courthouse.

Barb has her own ottoman, and it’s a whopper — big enough for her and a few adults to sit.

She warms up to people when one of her handlers, Bradshaw or Fawn Borden, victim witness coordinator, tells her, “Go say hey.” Those words are the cue for Barb to pick up a brightly colored Easter basket and take it to the person seated on the ottoman.

Barb’s snoring can be loud, but she doesn’t seem to enjoy barking, so that’s not been a problem. And if a cat — or even one of those fantasy rabbits — were to show up in a courtroom, Barb wouldn’t chase them, Bradshaw said. Barb has been trained to let them be.

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Barb gets potty breaks every four hours and does her business on command.

The one rule she tends to fudge on is the one to sit when a child is nearby. She remains seated but wiggles and scoots herself closer to the child, Bradshaw said.

“She has a special heart for kids. … She will ignore every adult if a child comes around,” Bradshaw said.

When the vest is on, Barb is “very serious,” Borden said. Take it off, and Barb starts wagging her tail, becomes “very playful” and loves to play fetch with a ball or one of the other toys scattered on a courthouse floor.

Barb was especially helpful with two children who were witnesses in a kidnapping and attempted capital murder case in Faulkner County.

“They got to throw a ball and pet her and roll on the floor with her,” Bradshaw said.

The children played with Barb before and after their testimony. That way, they didn’t have to wait in the small, dreary witness waiting room.

“We have trouble getting them (children) to leave” when they’ve gotten to visit with Barb, Bradshaw said. “We’ve heard them say, ‘It wasn’t so bad. I want to come back.'”

Barb hasn’t accompanied a child testifying in court yet but may in two cases coming up.

Prosecuting Attorney Cody Hiland said such dogs can help children speak “in intimate detail” about actions that may make the child feel unjustly ashamed, especially when there is a courtroom full of people listening.

“The great thing about this program is that dogs don’t judge, and kids understand that,” Hiland said. The dog “injects a small dose of positive” into an otherwise “harrowing (and) painful experience,” he said.

Not all children enjoy being with dogs, and the prosecutor’s office keeps that in mind, Bradshaw said.

In her few months in Conway, Barb has made “a difference in everyone’s life” in the prosecutor’s office, Bradshaw said.

“She’s made it a better place to work. … We have police officers that come by just to see her.”

Even when she’s not working, Barb hangs out in one section of the courthouse during the day. If she hears a worker who sounds upset or stressed out, she promptly goes to check on that person.

At night and on weekends, she goes home with Bradshaw. The courthouse-dog program calls for Barb to spend her retirement years with her primary handler, Bradshaw.

For now, Barb gets to play with Bradshaw’s other pets and chase floppy flying discs when they’re at home. Bradshaw and Borden make sure Barb gets plenty of down time after a lengthy court session, because staying still for so long can be hard work for a young, healthy dog.

She gets a bit of special treatment, though. She gets a weekly nail trimming and a good bath twice a month. She eats only dog food twice daily, at 6:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. The closet things she gets to food treats are ice chips because the program wants to be sure her weight stays at a healthy level.

The Canine Companions program took great care to make sure that the dog chosen for the 20th Judicial Circuit would be a good fit for the workers.

“They were looking for a specific dog that would fit in with the personalities here,” Borden said.

“They said they have better (success) rates than,” Bradshaw said, smiling. “We couldn’t have asked for a more perfect match.”