By MISTY HIGGINS For The State Journal
A West Virginia judge is using his dog to help children cope with court hearings.
BERKELEY SPRINGS — Circuit Court Judge John Yoder of the 23rd Judicial District happened upon an accidental experiment involving dogs and children when he began taking his border collie mix to court recently in Berkeley Springs following a fire that had damaged his house late last year.
Roxie, a 3-year-old stray that Yoder found abandoned near his home in Harpers Ferry, recently found herself in a new role comforting a little girl in one of the judge’s abuse and neglect cases as she prepared to talk to Yoder at the Morgan County Courthouse several weeks ago.
“Although I have been wanting to try this for some time, this first experiment was not something I planned in advance,” Yoder wrote in an earlier article for the Spirit of Jefferson Advocate.
After the Dec. 16 fire, Yoder moved with the dog to a motel and had to keep her with a friend while working during the day.
Having not been able to spend much time with Roxie, Yoder decided to take her to work so he could spend time with the dog during the one-hour drive to Morgan County and then keep her in his office while he was presiding over cases.
A case in early January involved two young girls who were about to speak with Yoder regarding their placement. Yoder took the girls to his office to speak privately after the youngest and more fearful child said she wanted to go where the dog was. As Yoder struggled to calm the girl and get her to open up in conversation, he realized that Roxie may be able to help. Bringing the normally timid dog near the girl, Roxie lay down and the girl pet the dog as she spoke to Yoder about the case.
“She said what she wanted me to hear, with the assistance of Roxie comforting her, without any problems,” Yoder wrote in his account of the event.
Roxie was probably abused herself, Yoder believes, and seemed to have an instant affection for the child. “I’m surprised that she lay right down and let the girl pet her,” he added. “She seemed to have a sense that the little girl was uncomfortable.”
During a training seminar for new judges at the National Judicial College, Yoder first became interested in using dogs in court after reading an article about using dogs to comfort children while testifying in abuse and neglect cases. Yoder said he was planning to try out a different dog in some cases later this month.
According to Yoder, testifying about their parents’ alleged abuse is awkward and intimidating for children. He said the dog is able to break the ice without need for numerous questions normally posed in order to build a rapport with the child.
Yoder is happy that the Morgan County Commission openly approves having Roxie in the courthouse. Berkeley County, where Yoder also has cases, is a bit less enthusiastic about the idea so far. There is an ordinance that does not allow dogs in the courtroom there, Yoder noted. He hopes this will change.
“My position is that I really have the right to do what’s in the best interest of the children,” Yoder said. “However, I do want to work with the county commission on it to make an exception for dogs used for comforting children.”
Yoder said that he is not aware of anywhere else in the state that uses dogs in court cases. Dogs have been used successfully in court in other states. Yoder feels that Roxie has the characteristics needed to be utilized as a therapy dog in his cases involving children.
A February 2010 article in USA Today stated that dogs used for courtroom service are trained to be totally still. There are documented cases of using dogs for comfort and emotional support in courtrooms as early as 2003, according to courthousedogs.com.
David Sanders, chief judge for the 23rd Judicial Circuit, is curious to see the results of Yoder’s experiences using the dog in court.
“Having worked on the abuse and neglect docket for years, I think that anything we can do to help children to be more relaxed and candid is worth a try,” Sanders said. “I haven’t seen it at work, but I’ll be interested to learn more. I think it’s an interesting and innovative idea.”
Yoder hopes to be able to use Roxie in his abuse and neglect cases that number about 24 a year, he said. And so far, in Morgan County, commissioners are in full support. “As a personal standpoint, I’m a big dog lover,” said commission president Stacy Dugan.
“And I think that anything we can do to ease the comfort level of these children in the courtroom we should do. I am also a health care professional, and we use animals all the time in healing and caring.”