How Merel the dog helps young witnesses testify in court

When children make statements, testify, or deliver victim-impact statements at the London courthouse, Merel is there to lend a helping paw
By Mary Baxter - Published on January 25, 2019
a service dog called Merel
Merel, a four-year-old Labrador retriever and Bernese mountain dog cross, started her job at the London courthouse in 2016. (Mary Baxter)

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LONDON — In the morning, she bounds across the London off-leash park and tussles with a stick, a dog like any other. But minutes later, in a downtown office, Merel, the Ontario court system’s first court-facility dog, is all business. After donning her purple vest, the four-year-old Labrador retriever and Bernese mountain dog cross ambles down the corridor with her handler, Rachel Braden, and into a counselling room at the London Family Court Clinic. 

“Merel, up. Merel, go visit,” says Braden, who coordinates the child-witness program at the non-profit, which provides supports and services for children and families involved in the justice system. Merel jumps up on a couch beside an eight-year-old boy and lays her head on his lap. He pats her, but she doesn’t move a muscle. A few days later, she does the same thing in a room at the London courthouse, stretching out on a custom-designed wooden bench and resting her head in the lap of a child providing pretrial testimony remotely via closed-circuit television. She can remain still for hours, a steadying presence for her young clients.   

Many of them are called to testify about sexual abuse, human trafficking, or other crimes. “Merel’s a great asset when it comes to keeping the girls calm and giving them a reason to come to court,” says Dana Kenney, a detective-constable with the London Police Service human-trafficking unit who works with female victims under the age of 18.

Merel, who’s been on the job since 2016, is no longer Ontario’s only court facility dog. (She’s not referred to as a therapy or support dog, because such terms could suggest that the witness is suffering from a condition caused by the accused.) At least five other canine helpers now work with courts elsewhere in the province — her brother Iggy, for example, provides the same service in Toronto and is stationed with the Boost Child & Youth Advocacy Centre. National Service Dogs, the Cambridge-based non-profit organization that bred and trained Merel and Iggy, is currently working to fill requests for three more court-facility dogs in Ontario.

The right temperament is critical: they must be comfortable cuddling with complete strangers and remain calm no matter what the situation. In her two-plus years working at the court, Merel has seen children yelling and crying. “She has the ability to sit with anyone regardless of their state,” Braden says.

During the pretrial in London earlier this month, the child began to pat Merel while testifying. When the judge and lawyers took breaks for discussion, the child leaned sideways to rub Merel’s head or stroke her neck and back. “This is often what we see, especially in cases where kids are giving verbal evidence,” Braden says. She, or one of her colleagues, always accompanies Merel in the courtroom.

Canine support is one of the newest methods used by witness- and victim-assistance workers to ease the stress of youth who have to testify. Closed-circuit television and privacy screens — allowed in Ontario since the late 1980s — are now common. But, in 2015, after a year on the job, Braden recognized that even when youth were distanced from an accused or from the intimidating features of a courtroom, the process remained challenging for them. So, after learning that court-facility dogs were being used in Western Canada and in the United States, she proposed to her organization and to the London Crown attorney’s office that they obtain one.

“Having the ability to have a dog like Merel now be part of the process shows how far we've come” in understanding the need to support children in court, says Mary Potter, a Crown attorney in Stratford who was working in London when Braden made her proposal. She says that “if we ever got to the point where it's just the reality that every jurisdiction had a Merel, that would be marvellous,” but notes that some rural and remote courts aren’t able to fund even CCTV.

The dogs are expensive — it takes about $30,000 to train and maintain them over the course of their working life. National Service Dogs, which retains ownership of all the dogs it breeds and trains and provides them free of charge to its clients, does not receive government funding. Instead, the organization fundraises and relies on volunteers to raise the dogs and finance their training. Braden and the clinic fundraise locally to cover Merel’s day-to-day needs.

Merel and Braden have so far supported 200 child witnesses and victims who’ve made statements, testified, or delivered victim-impact statements. Merel’s services are made available to all of those under 18 in the London region who have witnessed or been victims of a crime, says Braden, adding that they’re rarely turned down. Referrals come from area police services and the Crown attorney.

As yet, there’s no hard research proving that court-facility dogs can help relieve stress and facilitate testimony, says Alan Leschied, a Western University professor and psychologist who specializes in child justice and welfare. However, he says anecdotal evidence suggests that they have a positive impact and points to a “wealth of evidence” showing that canines in other helping capacities can reduce stress. “What we do know at this point through self-reports from both children and youth who have had access to Merel, and observations within the court of those who are testifying with Merel at their side, is that stress is lessened and that the ability of those children and youth to tell their story to the court is enhanced,” he says.

The lack of objective evidence hasn’t shaken local confidence in Merel’s abilities — far from it. In January, she and Braden were named to London mayor Ed Holder’s New Year’s honour roll in recognition of their work.

So how does Merel kick back after a day of court appearances and appointments?

When her workday ends, at 4 p.m., Merel is relieved of her jacket and romps in the corridor at the clinic office, often with the children she has helped. Then she goes for another walk with her dog friends, and, finally, it’s off home with Braden to play with one of her nearly 100 stuffed toys. So much is expected of her during the day, Braden says, that it’s really important “just to let her be a dog.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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