It’s no wonder dogs are called man’s best friend. After all, just petting a cute canine companion can brighten your day. So just imagine the difference a dog could make if you were really feeling alone, helpless and that the darkness is closing in. Indeed, it’s at times like these that the unconditional love of a pooch can shine through the shadows.
Of course, news that bad moods can be lifted by the sight of a wagging tail won’t surprise seasoned dog owners. But research does suggest that physical contact between humans and dogs is mutually beneficial. In fact, it releases chemicals in the brain that help ward off depression for both species.
Consequently, many of our furry friends are naturals when it comes to support work and therapy, though some breeds are better than others. Regardless of breed, though, every dog that goes into service work requires dedicated training.
For instance, some pooches can learn to smell when blood sugar levels are low in diabetes sufferers while others can be trained to alert an epileptic human several minutes in advance of a seizure. Service dogs can also support those with mental health conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder or autism. Bipolar Star Wars actress Carrie Fisher, for example, famously adopted her dog Gary to help calm her down when episodes of mania or depression flared.
However, you don’t need to be suffering from a mental or physical illness to get stressed. And what is one of the most stress-inducing situations out there? For some, it will be the sight of a judge in a court of law. This, then, is where Karl comes in. Indeed, Karl the boxer dog has an important job and provides special support under conditions that no one else can.
In fact, Karl is one of the assistance dogs who works in the K9th Circuit Program. The program was founded by Florida’s Judge Turner of the Ninth Judicial Circuit to create a more secure environment for children or vulnerable adults during official proceedings. As part of the program, expertly trained dogs and their handlers from the non-profit organization Companions for Courage attend court proceedings.
“Studies show that people are better able to recollect facts and provide more accurate information regarding traumatic events when they are calm and feel safe,” the K9th Circuit Program’s website explains. “With the assistance of our dog teams, children and adults are able to relieve their anxiety.”
So dogs such as five-year-old boxer Karl become silent heroes in the courtroom. A child witness, for example, will take the stand with Karl by his or her side before the judge orders the jury to even enter the room. This way, with the child already seated and Karl in his trademark floppy hat, the courtroom is less of a daunting environment for the youth.
The hat plays a crucial role too. After all, levity in such a serious setting is tricky, but Karl’s hat is just the ticket. “It makes people smile,” his trainer Joanne Hart-Rittenhouse told News 13. In fact, Companions for Courage said that Karl never leaves home without it.
But the hat and Karl aren’t just for anyone to see; Karl sits behind the witness stand out of sight so that few even know he’s there. Children witnesses have often experienced true horror – abuse, neglect or worse – but the presence of a Companions for Courage dog can give them strength to talk about their experience knowing they’re not alone.
One witness asked Hart-Rittenhouse if Karl would protect her from her abuser if he attacked her in court. “I doubt very much if he would do anything,” she told News 13. “But if that’s what made the child feel better, then absolutely: he’s going to protect you.”
Indeed, the Ninth Circuit dogs are trained especially to ensure that children in the court feel secure. “Our dogs must be well groomed, obedient, highly sociable, gentle, and affectionate, particularly with children,” the K9th Circuit Project website says.
It also says that the easy-going nature of Companions for Courage canines relieves pre-courtroom tension. It reads, “Our dog teams are often seen in the juvenile courthouse lobby helping to calm children and families, and replacing worried expressions with smiles and laughter, as these individuals await their court cases.”
In fact, even yelling and screaming won’t bother Karl. This might have something to do with his training, but it may also be because he’s deaf. Indeed, being deaf in this line of work becomes an advantage for Karl.
“He doesn’t hear all the noise,” Hart-Rittenhouse said. “So he’s not going to react to yelling, banging… all the other things that can happen during a case.” Communication isn’t a problem either; the smart boxer understands over 90 words of American Sign Language.
Moreover, a child can react to Karl’s reassuring presence without their emotions betraying their anxiety. They can, for instance, wrap their hands around his leash or rub his fur with their feet, and the boxer is happy to help them work through their pain.
It isn’t just the dogs who offer emotional support to their clients, though. In fact, the dogs’ handlers also help wherever they can and offer sage advice. “I always tell everybody: ‘wait until you get into your car before you cry,’ Hart-Rittenhouse said.
The importance of the court program to vulnerable witnesses and their families can’t be expressed any more clearly than with the emotional letters Companions for Courage has received from the people it has helped. One child even sent his companion dog a medallion of Saint Christopher to symbolize the protection he felt during the trial.
But it’s also essential to remember that the K9th Circuit Program isn’t just for children. Indeed, Karl got his own letter of appreciation from the mother of a vulnerable adult, who faced her attacker with strength and courage, and with Karl at her feet.
Furthermore, the therapy the companion dogs are able to provide can continue even beyond the trial. “We’ll be there as long as the child wants Karl to stay in their life,” Hart-Rittenhouse said. “He’s helped a lot of children. It makes me feel really good that we can do this and help.”