Friend of the Court
Nor’e may be a Labrador retriever, but she is as at home in a courtroom as any lawyer.
That’s where she works. Her office is in Southern Pines with her law partner, attorney Bill Clemons. This week she accompanied him to Juvenile Court in Carthage to meet District Judge Scott Etheridge, who came down off the bench to shake her paw and offer her a treat.
Nor’e is a courthouse dog, a professionally trained and fully accredited service dog. Her job is helping people testify in trials who otherwise have a tough time in an adversarial situation. Her name, pronounced “Nor-EE,” is short for Northeastern, from the name of the kennel where she was born.
“She is registered as a therapy dog,” Clemons says. “There are probably only four or five in the country who do what she does.”
She can comfort sexually abused children while they undergo forensic interviews or testify in court. A child who might be frightened can answer questions on the witness stand by talking to the dog.
“The first thing is introducing Nor’e to the child,” Clemons said during an interview with him and Nor’e in his office. “The child takes her leash, and Nor’e follows the child.”
That gives the child a sense of power, of being in control of something in a frightening life situation where he or she otherwise feels powerless. Nor’e builds confidence. Whether the child is answering questions in a deposition, or from law enforcement officers conducting an investigation, or on the stand in court, Nor’e is there, always ready to listen and never judgmental.
“Training is a lifelong thing for a dog,” Clemons said. “They are like children; they forget. A few years ago, a teacher up at Lakeview-Vass asked me to bring her to her class. It was a special needs class, the children sitting in a semicircle on the floor.
“There was one little boy she kept going to. At first he was rather standoffish, but after about four or five minutes, he was hanging on her, hugging on her. When I got ready to leave, he was upset, so I gave him her leash and he walked us to the door, and we left.”
A couple of days later, the teacher called to say that visit from Nor’e had had an amazing effect on that child.
“That boy is severely autistic,” she said. “He won’t walk. He insists on being carried. That is the first time I’ve seen him walk.”
Sometime after that, Clemons read an article about a courthouse dog in Seattle that is used in all phases of the courthouse, with prisoners as well as witnesses.
Trained courthouse dogs like Nor’e also assist drug court participants in their recovery, visit juveniles in detention facilities, greet jurors and lift the spirits of courthouse staff, who often conduct their business in settings fraught with unresolved conflict.
They can help people who suffer from physical, psychological or emotional trauma resulting from criminal conduct. The growing use of such trained helper animals is bringing great change to the way society meets emotional needs of people involved in the criminal justice system.
Nor’e’s very presence changes the atmosphere in a courtroom, as it did Thursday when bailiffs, lawyers and others greeted her and took advantage of the invitation embroidered on her green jacket: “Ask to pet me.”
When working a case, her calming presence can transform the courtroom into a more humane and efficient system — one enabling judges, lawyers, bailiffs, clerks and others to do their work in a more positive and constructive way.
Nor’e is trained to behave properly when she is working. At home she may be “Bill’s dog,” but in court she is professional staff, predictable and controllable. She knows to lie still, even for long, boring periods of time as court business goes on.
Trained to Remain Still
Her training means she will remain motionless even if something unexpected happens — a shouting match, action by police, or anything else. She won’t bark. She won’t try to defend Clemons or anybody else. She knows what to do, because she was carefully taught.
“She went through her training and did so well they decided to make her a breeder dog,” Clemons said. “When I heard that, I asked if I could host her. She would go back to have her puppies. She had one litter — seven pups. To the best of my knowledge, they are all guiding people right now.”
The downturn of the economy cut donations, and the number of dogs being trained had to drop. Nor’e was retired from breeding, spayed, and left with Clemons. He first began to use her with a reading program, helping learners by letting them read to the dog. Then Clemons had an idea.
“I thought, wait a minute, I’ve been a guardian ad litem for 11 years now,” he said. “I represent children who have been taken out of their homes because of abuse or neglect. Some of my children have to come into court and either talk to the judge or testify. That is a very terrifying experience even for adults, but especially for children.”
Clemons got to thinking it would be helpful if they had someone with them they felt comfortable with, someone they trusted. Like Nor’e.
‘Lowers Their Anxiety’
“I began bringing her to court,” he said. “I wrote all the judges and said what my idea was. Judge Maness wrote back to say it was a good idea. Now, every time I have a case, Nor’e goes with me. When I have a case with children, she works with the children. I take her around, and they pet her. It lowers their anxiety a little bit.
“When I have a child that has to testify, I work with the child and the dog. Part of it is therapeutic in that the child becomes the dog’s leader. Dogs are pack animals, so I teach the children how to be pack leader: Use a big voice, give a command, and expect the dog to do what they command. I work developing that rapport over time. The child can then take the dog with them to court.”
In one case, an abused child did not have to testify, because the perpetrator saw the dog and realized that the testimony would be offered. He made a deal.
“He went back and talked to his attorney,” Clemons said. “A few minutes later, they made a deal. She didn’t have to testify. That was a success to me. She was only maybe 6 years old and very, very frightened. I felt the dog’s presence, and his recognition that she might testify was to her benefit.”
It helps both sides, Clemons said. The dog makes it easier for a frightened witness to reply to questions from either side.
“I typically tell the children, ‘Answer the questions — but if you can’t look at the person and answer the questions, tell the dog.’ She loves them no matter what,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what happened in the past; she loves them in the present. Tell the dog.”
Contact John Chappell at (910) 783-5841 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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