In Pittsburgh courtrooms, this soothing dog is a therapist and victim advocate
In select Allegheny County courtrooms, witnesses nervous about confronting their abusers are privy to the services of a special type of attendant.
Her sole job: Calm the nerves of victims of trauma and make them feel safe.
This particular courtroom attendant is the only one of her kind in Pittsburgh. She can’t speak English and has never been to college, but she has an uncanny ability to know when someone is suffering, anxious or afraid.
She also has twinkling dark-chocolate eyes, a penchant for car rides with the windows rolled down and a sense of smell that’s 10,000 to 100,000 times better than yours .
Meet Penny the advocate
Her name is Penny, and she’s a 9-year-old spaniel-border collie mix.
Since 2011, the black-and-white-speckled dog from Pittsburgh’s North Hills has held the title of Western Pennsylvania’s first and only canine courtroom and victim advocate.
Pretty soon, she’ll have a partner.
Crisis Center North’s fledgling venture to bring canine advocacy into the justice system proved to be so effective that Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. decided to devote more forfeited drug money toward funding the training of a second dog.
“For a lot of people, it’s a very traumatic experience to come to the courthouse. Most victims don’t want to be here,” Zappala said. “And to have these types of tools — and I hate to call them tools, because they’re so much more than that — they’re just wonderful. And these guys have figured out how to maximize their (the dogs’) value.”
The DA’s renewed vote of confidence comes as the North Hills-based nonprofit’s Paws for Empowerment program increasingly garners further acclaim among human services groups, local judges and statewide public officials.
Last month, Gov. Tom Wolf recognized Crisis Center North for the canine advocacy program with two Governor’s Victims Services Pathfinder awards during a conference of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency in Hershey.
Penny, left, a 9-year-old spaniel-border collie mix, poses in the Allegheny County Courthouse, Downtown beside her partner-in-training, Ari, an 11-month-old Australian shepherd and Lab retriever mix. In Hindi, Ari means, “he who shows the right path,” says Grace Coleman, executive director of Crisis Center North, the domestic violence nonprofit expanding its canine advocacy program. “We call him our little lion for justice.”
Photo by Natasha Lindstrom
“We’re very pleased to have the dog in the courtroom,” said District Judge Anthony W. Saveikis, one of the first two judges to allow Penny to participate in hearings. “These are times that are very emotional, very poignant, very difficult for people, especially in the area of juvenile victims and domestic violence.”
Let the dog ‘do her magic’
Penny spends at least four days a week supporting trauma victims — mostly, women and children affected by domestic violence. She splits her time between counseling sessions and courtrooms of district judges, including Judge Mary P. Murray in Coraopolis and Saveikis in Oakdale.
Saveikis said any apprehension he or other staffers may have had about having a dog in court quickly dissolved once they saw how much the animal’s presence actually helped.
Not only is Penny quiet, well-behaved and unimposing, but she’s also a keen observer of people showing physical signs of emotional pain or discomfort.
“Penny’s really good at diagnosing people’s different situations,” said Grace Coleman, executive director of Crisis Center North , which offers a wide range of support services to victims of domestic violence, including in-house counseling sessions. “The dog can pick up on things. Sometimes, a dog can detect sadness and tears before you actually cry.”
When a client is suffering from depression, Penny will approach the person, gently places a paw on their knee and lean in affectionately.
When someone seems especially anxious, she will back off and sit quietly while making friendly eye contact.
“She will sit directly in front of them and stare at them and not look away, and they tell their story,” Coleman said.
Once in court, a perpetrator suddenly started to charge toward the witness and Penny body-blocked him by planting herself firmly as a barricade.
On less eventful days, the dog’s mere presence ushers in a “calming influence” and “cuts through the acrimony and the contentiousness,” Saveikis added.
“If someone comes in with a mean, sour look on their face,” Saveikis continued, “we say, ‘All right, we’ll let the dog do their magic.'”
Grace Coleman, executive director of Crisis Center North, said she hopes more human services agencies and justice systems consider dedicating resources to canine advocacy programs. The center has the support of District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala and will soon expand into more courtrooms in Allegheny County.
Photo by Natasha Lindstrom
Science is catching up
Coleman got the idea after a young boy who was reluctant to go into a therapy session asked to pet a dog who happened to be visiting her office. She suggested he take the dog with him into the session — and the therapist reported they made more progress that day than they had in the previous six months.
“Dogs act as a social catalyst, so to speak, by getting people to feel more comfortable in talking and revealing things and feeling more secure,” said Aubrey Fine, a psychologist and professor at California State Polytechnic University and author of “The Handbook on Animal Assisted Therapy.”
Fine noted that growing bodies of research have found that canine companions do more than just make people feel good; they have real biological effects, such as by lowering a person’s blood pressure and heart rate and decreasing levels of the stress-producing hormone cortisol.
“Science is sort of catching up to what intuitively people have thought all along — that animals are really healthy in our daily life,” Fine said.
Since Penny is a working advocate, she has to be more adaptable and skilled at the art of calming humans than the average pet or even therapy dog.
That’s why Crisis Center North hired dog trainer Cheri Herschell to coach Penny using a so-called “intuitive” training method. Unlike traditional obedience training, which relies mostly on taking commands, Herschell’s intuitive method taps into a dog’s innate abilities to recognize signs of distress in people, and lets a dog make some of its own decisions as to how it responds.
“What we’ve seen in terms of dogs establishing the human-animal bond has been magnificent,” Coleman said.
Coleman said she’s hopeful the concept will catch on in more human services agencies, since “it’s a model that’s very cost-effective for other victims services agencies to follow.”
The catch: Getting started will require careful planning, ongoing fundraising and, hopefully, employees to train and handle the dog who are willing to devote to sticking around at least a few years.
The DA has pitched in $10,000 to help offset costs as Crisis Center North expands, and the nonprofit has raised $1,130 of a $5,000 goal on GoFundMe to support Penny’s new partner and canine advocate-in-training, Ari.
The center adopted Ari, an 11-month-old Australian shepherd and Lab retriever mix, from Action for Animals near Latrobe. Zappala doesn’t foresee justice officials having qualms about allowing more dogs in court — so long as they’re trained as well as Penny.
The DA said of his judges, “Pretty much they’re all animal lovers.”
Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514, [email protected] or via Twitter @NewsNatasha.