HOULTON, Maine — Aroostook County will be the first to have a dog stationed at the courthouse that is specifically trained to comfort people who are dealing with traumatic experiences.
Holiday, a yellow Labrador retriever who was donated by a local breeder and lives with Aroostook County District Attorney Todd Collins in Presque Isle, is being trained to work with people in a courtroom setting.
“Courthouse facility dogs can provide a sense of normalcy during juvenile and family court proceedings, and can accompany vulnerable crime victims, including children, rape victims, developmentally delayed adults and the elderly during investigations and court proceedings,” Collins said. “They can also provide emotional comfort to family members during the trial and sentencing of the offender.”
Collins wants Aroostook County to become the first district in Maine to employ courthouse dogs to comfort children and victims of violent crimes throughout the legal process. His goal is to abate the stress and psychological damage incurred as survivors and witnesses relive the traumatic events that brought them to court.
The dogs are used in a way that does not disrupt legal proceedings or create legal issues, he said.
Holiday is about 14 weeks old and was donated by Karley Allen of Northern Woods Labs in Limestone. While it will take nearly two years for the precocious pup to complete her training, Holiday is already melting hearts whenever she visits the offices in Houlton or Caribou.
“When I was starting my program, I knew that part of my mission would be to donate puppies for therapy and service work purposes as I believe wholeheartedly in the power of a dog,” said Karley Allen, owner of Northern Woods Labs in Limestone. “They are truly heart healers that give endless love and can give so much back to our communities when placed in these roles.”
Victims of violence are not the only ones who experience trauma. Those who work and volunteer in the fields of victim services, law enforcement, emergency medical services, fire services and other allied professions can experience vicarious trauma due to their continuous exposure to those victims, Collins said.
Some of the actions that can lead to worker trauma are listening to clients recount their victimization, looking at videos of exploited children, reviewing case files, hearing about or responding to the aftermath of violence and other traumatic events day after day and responding to incidents that have resulted in numerous injuries and deaths.
The Houlton courthouse already has an unofficial therapy dog — Nephi, a 3-year-old English Mastiff weighing nearly 200 pounds — who can sometimes be found in the office of his owner, Valerie Eldredge, the victim/witness advocate in Houlton.
Holiday will have a much more focused job than Nephi once she completes her training.
“She will be the first working [courthouse] dog in the state,” said Tyler Jones, owner of Purpose Pups in Houlton who is training Holiday to become an officially licensed courthouse dog. “When she is done, she will have 208 hours of training to make her specifically a working dog.”
The difference between a therapy dog and a service dog is the level of attentiveness they have. Among other skills, Holiday will learn to be still and silent in a courtroom, walk to the witness stand on command and remain seated at that spot for long periods of time.
Holiday also will be trained to accompany the district attorney during investigations to help people who have had traumatic experiences or have been hurt by someone they may have trusted.
Jones not only works with Holiday, but is also training Collins so that he can take command once the dog’s sessions are complete. Collins and Holiday spend two hours per week working with Jones in his Houlton office.
Courthouse facility dogs are often viewed as the gold standard for training and can take upward of two years to complete. After one year of training, Holiday will be evaluated to make sure she is still suitable for the job.
“The amount of precision training that she needs to receive is intensive,” Jones said. “Service dog work depends on introduction, repetition and consistency. Not every dog can be a service dog. Only 30 percent of those trained actually make it.”
Holiday will be able to help the DA Office’s staff cope with compassion fatigue – the burnout and vicarious traumatic stress they experience as they work with clients who have been through violence or other trauma. The workers can have frustration, anger, exhaustion and depression or experience traumatic stress from some of the more disturbing materials they work with to prove cases.
“A courthouse dog can provide emotional support for everyone,” Collins added. “Burnout is a real concern for our office.”