COURT­ROOM COM­FORT

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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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