Training session teaches about courthouse dogs

March 11, 2014 • Local News

Courthouse dogs Molly, left, and Max get acclimated to the Chaves County Courthouse as the 5th Judicial District Attorney’s Office hosted a training session, Wednesday. (Mark Wilson Photo)

Courthouse dogs Molly B. and Max held their debut in District Court, Tuesday. Roswell’s celebrity and CASA dog Moose put in an appearance as staff gathered to meet the two Labs.

Max is one of three who will be placed in southeast New Mexico. One will eventually come to stay in Roswell with carer / handler District Attorney Janetta Hicks and her Chaves County alternates, Angela Valdez and Omega Day.

The process of approval has been lengthy. Hick’s said that their office applied in December or January. However, the initial application required background information, along with back-up documentation, before it could be submitted. They received their approval from Assistance Dogs of the Southwest in February.

To date, Hicks has gone through four interviews. Each handler goes through the same, interviews and home [auth] inspections. The Hicks household got the Max stamp of approval on Monday. The courthouse dogs were taken to the local dog park to meet the Hicks family hounds.

Ellen O’Neill-Stephens, former prosecutor and founder of Courthouse Dogs Foundation said there are 60 courthouse dogs in 23 states. New Mexico has six of them, placing it as one of the top states in the country. Two of the New Mexico courthouse dogs are placed with the DA’s office in Taos, one CASA dog in Albuquerque, and one in Hobbs. Roswell has two. When Chaves County Courthouse becomes the seventh location, it will be a forerunner in the state, with a total of three.

However, Chaves County Court is not the only court in the Fifth District to get one. One dog will go to Eddy and another to Lea County. “We’re getting three dogs. One for each county so that everyone will have a chance to utilize the dogs,” said Hicks.

The goal according, to Hicks is to: “… relieve the stress associated with the criminal justice system for victims, witnesses and defendants.”

Max and Honeypie are the two most likely contenders for southeast New Mexico. Both Max and Honeypie are blond Labs. Molly B., a black beauty, already has a handler.

During Tuesday’s class, bailiffs, members of the DA staff, got a chance to witness the dogs firsthand and their low-key approach to problem-solving. Dr. Celeste Walsen, veterinarian and executive director of Courthouse Dogs Foundation explained the bond between canine and human, a bond not found between with any other species, either feline or avian. It is a mechanism that calms the heart and lowers blood pressure.

She invited everyone to observe the dogs at work. “It will be very boring after about 10 seconds.” Molly B. and Max demonstrated their prowess by laying still and having an occasional snooze.

O’Neill-Stephens discussed the appropriate use of courthouse dogs and the appropriate procedures. She gave a brief history of the use of courthouse dogs in the United States. She also noted the objections that had been raised in the past against their use nationwide, such as the dogs were disruptive or they distracted the jury. Many of these objections have been overturned in various state supreme and appellate court rulings.

As the instructions about proper placement within the courtroom environment and human behavior drew to a close, the two dogs behaved like true professionals stretched out on their mats.

When the handlers removed their uniforms of office, Molly B. and Max transformed. Both began to play. Molly offered her tummy to be rubbed.

The process of selection, training and housing and which dog for which court, continues. Hicks estimates that their training will be completed in six months and a courthouse dog will be a full-time resident by the end of April.

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