Therapy Dog Retires After Helping Children Testify In Tulsa Court
TULSA, Oklahoma - A court therapy dog that has spent the last five years helping kids testify against their abusers in court is retiring.
Nala is one of six dogs on what the Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office calls its Special Dogs Unit. Prosecutors said when children are either victims or witnesses of traumatic crimes, the dogs not only provide comfort - but courage to share their story.
“They’re the ultimate comfort to these kids, and helping them to prepare to testify,” said Julie Doss, Director of Crimes against Children. “But also to just help them get through what is probably the most difficult time that they'll have in their lives."
Doss said Nala has changed the fate of countless cases. When children testify against rapists, murderers, and other offenders, it often leads to longer sentences.
“One little boy was shaking. He was so afraid to talk about what happened. And Nala walked up to him, and she set her head right on his shoulder. And you could see his whole body just relax,” said Doss, who added that because the child was able to testify, his mother’s killer received life without the possibility of parole.
Nala and other court therapy dogs provide a partner in the courthouse to help children relax and feel safe when they’re face to face with the offender. Prosecutors said sometimes the dogs help prevent children from having to testify in the first place.
"Once a defendant realizes that a child has the courage, that a child has the ability, that the child is going to come in and get up on that stand, and talk about what happened to them, when the defendants realize that, many times, they will waive their preliminary hearing, they'll decide to enter a plea, because they know that child is going to testify against them,” said Doss.
Nala’s handler, Debra Cox, said the dog has the natural ability to sense which child needs her support.
“She’ll walk into the Victim Witness Center and go right up to the child, almost instinct. Then the child starts to pet her, and feel happier,” said Cox. "You really don't train a dog to be a therapy dog. They either have it or they don't. "
But the stories shared, whether leading up to testimony, or on the stand, take a toll not only on handlers like Cox, but the dogs.
"This type of work is so emotional, and so tense up here, that the dogs take all of that in, and it really wears on them,” said Cox.
Cox and Nala said now they plan to travel to other districts to advocate for courthouses to adopt similar programs.