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Louie the courthouse dog

06 October 2016 - By Geoff Adlam

New Zealand's first court dog – a chilled-out black Labrador called Louie – has proved a real success at Tauranga's courthouse. And he's loving every minute of it, his owner says.

Louie supports young victims and witnesses through the stress and trauma of appearing in court. His owner, victims adviser Gail Bryce, says one unexpected bonus has been the positive impact Louie has had on court staff and lawyers.

Louie the Tauranga courthouse dog 

"Having a dog in the office environment is a real warm fuzzy and everyone will say hello to him, come and spend time stroking him, and for them, just breathing for a moment because they're stressed. Everyone benefits from having the dog here."

Gail Bryce has been working at Tauranga court for a year. Louie's introduction to the court came when Gail had to assist two young girls who were going to have to give evidence against their father. When they came in for a pre-trial visit to familiarise themselves with the court, she realised there were going to be problems.

"I looked at these girls and they were not going to be good witnesses. They were absolutely distraught. I thought, what else can we do, how else can we help them? It came to me the next day – what about a dog? I happen to have the perfect one."

After discussing it with other court staff and the girls' mother, Gail brought Louie to court.

"They absolutely loved him. He kept them busy, thinking of different things, feeding him treats and taking him for walks. It worked very well; they didn't just sit there fretting and waiting."

Louie is now a common sight around the courthouse. He's very happy about things, of course.

"He's getting on a bit – he's eight now – but he's a very chilled-out black Lab with an incredible temperament," says Gail.

"Of course, the thing with a Lab is food, so people will often bring treats in for Louie. I've had families who come back for Day Two of a trial and they've made a special journey to the pet shop or to the supermarket to buy him treats for the next day."

Most of Louie's work is in supporting young victims of mainly sexual violence cases. He waits with them during the day and they can have a break by taking him for a walk. Louie can also be with the children when they give evidence via CCTV, lying at their feet.

"It just reinforces that they're in a safe place," says Gail Bryce. "They're safe and Louie's got their back. And afterwards, they can be fairly emotional, and it's just being able to have a cuddle with Louie. He's a big black Lab, he's a big bear, and the children just love cuddling him – and he'll take any amount of that; he'll do it all day, every day."

Courthouse dogs are a novelty in New Zealand, but not in some other jurisdictions. They have been around in some United States courts since 2003, when golden Labrador Jeeter made his first appearance by accompanying twin sisters into a courtroom after they refused to testify without his presence.

The US movement grew quickly from there and "courthouse facility dogs" are now in at least 26 states to assist crime victims and witnesses, as well as helping participants in Drug Courts and Mental Health Courts and being present in child advocacy centres and district attorney offices. The non-profit Courthouse Dogs Foundation provides technical assistance, accreditation and training. Just a week ago, from 23-26 September, the Foundation hosted the 2016 International Courthouse Dogs Conference in Bellevue, Washington.

The initiative has spread over the border to Canada. In early 2015 Calgary Police Service black Labrador Hawk became the first dog in Canada to be present in court during a child sex-assault trial. A trial in England's Chelmsford County Court with therapy dogs began in January this year and it has been such a success that it is now being introduced to another court. For once, the hero of the English trial is not a Lab – the canine participants have included Bushy, a Yorkshire terrier-Chihuahua cross.

Justice Minister Amy Adams met Louie in May 2016, and says she was delighted to hear about the innovative way in which young victims and witnesses were being comforted in Tauranga Court, thanks to Louie.

"After meeting him, it was clear to see the calming effect he would have on child witnesses," she says.

"I congratulate the Tauranga Court staff for seeing the potential of a court dog, and for making this happen."

Gail Bryce says the Ministry of Justice is looking at extending the successful Louie initiative, but there are complexities. The right dog is needed, along with the right person handling that dog. She says if plans to bring in specific Sexual Violence Courts proceed, dogs could be ideal for working with victims.

Last updated on the 6th October 2016