When the 10-year-old girl took the stand during her sexual assault trial in British Columbia this week, Caber sat at her feet, soothing her as she testified.
The 7-year-old Labrador retriever’s presence during the trial marks the first time a dog has been used in a British Columbia courtroom, said Caber’s handler and Delta Police Victim Services coordinator Kim Gramlich.
“At this trial, Caber provided the unique kind of support that helped the child witness give a full and candid account of what happened to her,” trial prosecutor Winston Sayson said in a statement.
The victim held Caber’s leash during her nearly-hour-and-half testimony on Tuesday and bent down several times to pet him during the emotionally charged trial, Gramlich said.
“She did at one point have quite an emotional reaction to having to discuss this in court,” Gramlich said. “When we took a break on one occasion, she lied down on the floor and cuddled Caber and played around with him a little bit.”
Caber is part of a pilot program run by the Delta Police Victim Services and Surrey Crown Counsel office. He met the victim a few months ago and accompanied her during pre-trial interviews, which he regularly does, Gramlich said. The prosecutor then successfully petitioned a judge to allow Caber to accompany the victim’s support person during the actual trial.
“This judgment is an important acknowledgement by the court that the criminal justice system can continue to evolve and be innovative in accommodating children and vulnerable victims so their access to justice is enhanced,” Sayson said.
Caber is the first of Canada’s six accredited victim assistance dogs. Dogs have been used twice before in a Canadian courtroom, according to Delta police.
In the United States, 78 dogs offer support in courthouses across 28 states, according to the nonprofit Courthouse Dogs Foundation.
Humans have increasingly turned to dogs for helping deal with trauma. Dogs have been used in therapy for veterans coping with PTSD.
A review of 69 studies on human-animal interactions published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that animals could help reduce stress in humans, perhaps by boosting the hormone oxytocin.
An increase in that hormone “allows a person to feel more comfortable, feel calm,” Gramlich said. “Because of the presence of a dog, what we find is the individual is more likely able to effectively communicate.”
Gramlich added the positive effect only happens when the person is receptive to dogs.
The Pacific Assistance Dog Society trained Caber, who then joined the Delta Police force in 2010. Since then, Gramlich said she’s seen him make a big impact on children and adults receptive to dogs.
In one case, an adult victim who was “not very favorable to police” told authorities to leave him alone, she recounted. But he liked dogs. So then they brought Caber along.
“In his first introduction [to Caber], he fell to his knees and cried,” Gramlich said. With that wall broken down, the man then allowed authorities to intervene.
Months later, the man looked Gramlich in the eyes, she said, and told her “This dog was the only thing that helped me.”