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Four Legs Better Than Two When It Comes To Relieving Stress

Chris Morisse Vizza/WBAA Radio

Tippecanoe County is enlisting help from man’s best friend to make court appearances less stressful for abused and neglected children.

Court Appointed Special Advocate Executive Director Coleen Connor says local members of Therapy Dogs International contacted her at the same time she and some volunteer advocates were investigating the idea of bringing a trained therapy dog into the courtroom to calm some of the most-traumatized child victims.

They tested the concept when a teenage ward of the court said he’d be glad to have dogs in the courtroom during his hearing.

“There were no signs of emotional outbreaks, nervous movement or emotional outbreaks that we’ve had in the past with this young man,” Connor says.

Connor invited Bessie, a traditional Chinese Shar-Pei, and her handler, Tom Roberts, to help convince the county commissioners to allow handlers and animals certified by Therapy Dogs International to be present during some court proceedings.

Roberts, of Carroll County, says he’s been taking therapy dogs into several Lafayette-area psychiatric facilities for several years.

Credit Chris Morisse Vizza/WBAA Radio
Handler Tom Roberts and his dog Bessie are certified by Therapy Dogs International to help calm people in high-stress situations.

He says research shows humans experience a decrease in blood pressure, as well as positive changes in dopamine and serotonin levels – chemicals that communicate information through the brain and body.

“The big chemical change is in the reduction of cortisol levels,” Roberts says. “Cortisol is known as a stress marker, and the presence of a dog, after about 15 minutes, we’ll see a real significant drop in that cortisol level.”  

Roberts says the dogs are tested to ensure they are comfortable with people who display varying degrees of behavioral control.  

County Prosecutor Pat Harrington says Roberts’ therapy dogs have calmed victims of domestic violence and child abuse when they’ve been in court.

The commissioners on Monday agreed to allow certified therapy dogs in the courthouse when Connor or Harrington believe the animals’ presence will benefit a child or adult victim.

Connor says the handlers and their dogs will be scheduled as needed and might be in the courthouse three or four times a month.

CASA Director Coleen Connor, handler Tom Roberts and Bessie ask the Tippecanoe County commissioners to allow therapy dogs in courtrooms.

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