Honeypie, with her friend Molly, may be visiting Chaves County Courthouse soon. Here the dogs are seen relaxing after they returned from Berrendo Middle School. According to the Facebook page, the two dogs got a gift of cookies and wanted to say thanks to their supporters and to those they had supported. (Courtesy Photo)
Next week, the Chaves County Courthouse will be introduced to two new courthouse dogs. Emma and Moose, the CASA dogs, are already known and loved in the community. Both dogs came from Assistance Dogs of the West.
The organization was established in 1995. The group provides general service dogs for people with disabilities and those with mobility issues.
It also provides courthouse or facility dogs. As one of the first service dog groups in the West, it has made the state of New Mexico a pioneer in the area of facility dogs.
The training for the courthouse dog is specialized. The duties for the courthouse dogs are different, so the training is different. “We follow the same training path required for any other service dog, but then we veer off the path,” said Jill Felice, ADW founder and trainer.
“Before I talk about training, first I have to talk about temperament,” she said.
“We have dogs chosen for their temperament. They need to know when to interact and when not to interact. They must exhibit little body movement, stand still, be friendly, but without wiggling, bouncing or wagging of tails that might scare a child.”
ADW dogs will be taught more than 90 commands, a process which takes 18 to 24 months. Emma is legendary. She not only understands commands in English and Spanish, she has learned American sign language, too.
They must be able to understand visual cues, but the courthouse dog does not learn standard obedience training signs for sit, stay and wait; but sign language as used by the deaf.
Training for the facility dog literally begins on day one. The puppies are handled by a number of people, as part of the early socialization process. As adult dogs, the facility dog has to get used to being passed from one handler to another.
“They must know that the person who is on the other end of the leash is their handler. They are exposed to so many different people during training, students from ages 8 to 18, professional trainers, the developmentally and physically disabled. They must be able to handle all different behaviors,” said Felice.
Facility dogs can be placed in a variety of settings such as schools, courthouses, health care agencies and detention facilities. Courthouse dogs specifically work with crime victims, although they may be called upon to assist the family members of victims.
Most often children are the courthouse dogs’ clients, so they spend at least two hours a week in schools. “They can be around between 30 children in a classroom setting up to 700 children when they are in the halls,” she said.
The dogs are housed with their trainers, who provide stability during their formative months, but eventually they get moved onto other handlers. Trainers use positive reinforcement, anything from compliments, petting to treats, based on the philosophy that if you reward the positive, the negative will go away. They also use clicker training.
When the dogs are ready to move to their assignment, then it is the handler who is trained.
The selection process is complex, with a series of interviews for potential handlers. “It’s not as easy as a it looks. Janetta Hicks has been interviewed four times,” Felice said.
The handler and dog become so highly trained they develop an interactive language.
“To see everyone working well together, it’s a beautiful thing, especially in the courtroom which is a scary process,” she said.