Service Dog Help Kids Testify in Ontario Court
Testifying in court can be an anxiety-filled experience for any person, but especially for youth.
That's why Merel, an 18-month-old black Labrador mixed with Bernese Mountain Dog, is helping children and teens in London, Ontario, soothe their fears before testifying at the London Courthouse.
Merel is the Child Witness Program's new "facility dog." She's Ontario's first dog of her kind.
Merel has been on the job three weeks now thanks to the Child Witness Program's partnership with the London Family Court Clinic, a nonprofit organization dedicated to serving children and families.
When children are being prepped for court, "they are scared, frightened, [and] nervous," Rachel Crawford, the coordinator of the Child Witness Program, told ABC News. "The justice system -- we’re doing better -- but it’s certainly not child-friendly and so they’re anxious and don’t know what to expect."
Crawford added that Merel provides "comfort and support" to children, who are witnesses or victims in any type of criminal case in London, Ontario.
"She’s just a very calming presence," Crawford added of Merel, who was trained by National Service Dogs. "So when they come into the courthouse, the [youth] are very escalated, but with Merel they’re able to know that it’s a safe place for them and they can come and tell their story."
Crawford admits that since Merel started working with her three weeks ago, her days are a bit longer.
"She moves very, very slowly," Crawford added with a laugh. "But she’s very gentle. She’s very loving. She loves to be with people. She’ll often sit right on the couch beside the child with her head on their lap or she’ll sit at their feet."
Since Merel started her work, she's aided six child victims. Crawford said her "impact has been incredible."
"It's sort of hard to know how I ever did my work without her," she added. "She helps build an instant rapport. They can walk in and it's an instant conversation starter and allows us to have those happy conversations and talk about court preparation."