There was a palpable buzz in the hallways of the Saskatoon provincial courthouse on a Monday morning in October as people were heard talking about “the dog.”In an upstairs courtroom a screen flickered to life, showing a seven-year-old boy on a black leather couch in a room across the hall. Beside him, a black lab lolled, camouflaged by the couch, her gentle snoring the only thing giving away her presence.For the first time, an emotional support dog was being used in a Saskatoon courthouse.“That’s a pretty special thing, so you’re lucky,” Judge Natasha Crooks told the boy from the bench.Merlot and her handler, Sgt. Tia Froh with the Regina Police Service (RPS), stayed in the room while the boy testified at the preliminary hearing of a man charged with child abuse and neglect.The boy broke out in a big grin as soon as the video turned off, Froh later said. She told him she thought it was the first time she’d seen him smile. He corrected her: it was the second time. The first was when Merlot started snoring.The almost six-year-old lab doesn’t bark or frolic. In fact, if it weren’t for all the human attention, she’d be easy to miss.“Her temperament’s chill. When people see her, they think something’s wrong with her, because you see a lab and you think it should be running around,” Froh says.But when Froh takes off her vest and badge during the lunch break, Merlot becomes playful. She knows she’s “off the clock.”Judges, court workers and lawyers flocked to the courtroom, petting, swooning and relishing the happiness Merlot brought to a place accustomed to tears and frustration.The benefits of an accredited facility dog in the justice system are far-reaching, Froh says. Merlot provides a silent comfort that helps people focus on the task at hand — in this case, giving testimony.“It changes the energy in the court entirely,” said Tamara Rock, the Crown prosecutor on the case. “I saw the judge being responsive, the defence lawyer was very supportive, it made everybody feel that there was a fair and kind process going on.”Studies show just the presence of a dog can release stress hormones, Froh said. Facility dogs are specifically trained to provide emotional support.Merlot came from Pacific Assistance Dog Society (PADS) in British Columbia — one of seven accredited agencies in Canada. All courthouse dogs must be accredited; it’s a vigorous process that includes 16-18 months of basic training before the pups transition into their specialty. Merlot’s loving demeanour and connection with people made her perfect for facility work, Froh said.She’s been in court more than 70 times since the Regina police got her in 2015. Merlot is one of 39 accredited facility dogs in Canada and the first to be used in a Saskatchewan courtroom, where Froh said she’s taken to curling up on the witness box floor, making herself small and quiet.Her intuition kicks in when people become agitated during their testimony. She’ll nudge them until they calm down. Once, when a fiveyear-old girl started crying in the witness box, Merlot licked the tears off her face.“She’s just got the perfect timing of knowing when that person needs her the most,” Froh says.Merlot is based out of the Regina Children’s Justice Centre and mostly assists with child witnesses, sexual assault victims and vulnerable adults during the investigative and court processes. However, she can be available for anyone who has “shut down,” Froh said.Rock said that’s why she requested Merlot, describing how the young victim in her case initially wouldn’t even make eye contact.“I knew that he would be asked to recount details of a very traumatic and painful time in his life and I wanted to try and get him something that would make him feel safe and taken care of.”The boy smiled during his first meeting with Merlot, Rock said. He may not have been responding to the court case, but he was responding to something — and that was progress.The next time Rock saw the boy, he was much more confident. He knew he had a job to do.“It was kind of like magic, to watch it, because it’s not about words. It’s a very strong bond and you can just see it.”Regina police didn’t have to purchase Merlot — PADS is a non-profit that voluntarily trains the dogs and loans them to organizations at no cost. Froh can choose to adopt Merlot at the end of the dog ’s working career.In the meantime, facility dogs need a dedicated handler. Froh and Merlot are with each other virtually 24 hours a day.It’s a big commitment, and something the Saskatoon Police Service has been considering for years. The province’s three accredited facility dogs all work in southern Saskatchewan.Froh gave a presentation about Merlot to Saskatoon police that sparked a “renewed interest” in getting a trauma dog, said Insp. Lorne Constantinoff.“To see it in action, to see the success stories within another police service — and one so close to Saskatoon — resonates.”The challenge is deciding where a dog would fit best within the organization — sex crimes, victims services, etc. — and what the handler position would look like. For example, it could be a part-time civilian rather than a full-time officer.“It’s a matter of juggling manpower and timing. Maybe at the time when the RPS was able, they had the availability within their organization to absorb that,” he said, adding that sometimes, Regina and Saskatoon’s police services have different priorities.However, Constantinoff confirmed there is “strong interest” within the police service, and meetings planned to talk about how to move forward.Rock is happy to hear it. She says there are plenty of cases in Saskatoon that could benefit from a dog like Merlot.“When there’s that level of protection given to a child, the justice system feels fair.”It was kind of like magic, to watch it, because it’s not about words. It’s a very strong bond and you can just see it.
Merlot, a black lab based out of the Regina Children’s Justice Centre, and handler Sgt. Tia Froh of the Regina Police Service are together virtually 24 hours a day.
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