Pilgrim: The Courthouse Dog

By: Former Judge Leslie Spornberger Jones

Few people would bat an eye to hear that the new employee in the courthouse has a detailed job description, much less that he has a business card. But when the co-worker is a four year-old black Labrador-Golden Retriever mix, eyebrows raise, and smiles abound. At least that has been the experience in Bartow and Gordon Counties since Pilgrim, the Courthouse Dog, arrived on the job on February 15, 2016. 

Pilgrim, the Courthouse Dog“Pilgrim helps break down people’s guard,” says his handler, Julia Richards, the Director of Victim Assistance for the Cherokee Judicial Circuit’s District Attorney’s Office.

Pilgrim was “hired” to provide support for victims, witnesses, courthouse personnel, and even defendants. He accomplishes his work by sitting with both children and adults as they wait for court, prepare for interviews, or meet with other people. Richards says Pilgrim knows over 40 commands. “He can turn pages in a book, bring puzzle pieces to you, open doors, and close drawers. He even has a board book that he shares with people who visit our office.” 

His most important responsibility is providing comfort to people unfamiliar with the court process. “Pilgrim is here and available to everyone who comes into or works in the courthouse,” Richards says. His sweet, disarming charm and gentle presence put even those most nervous or stressed by being in court at ease.

Richards describes how a child victim of a crime that is currently being prosecuted “was petrified about coming to court. We thought there would be no way to get the child on the stand. We began working with the child’s therapist, and learned the child liked dogs. So we introduced the child to Pilgrim.”

Pilgrim with girlAt their first meeting, the child’s face lit up, and Richards’ staff was finally able to visit the courtroom with the child, who asked a lot of questions. Richards is confident the child will be able to testify without fear now. “A calm witness is better for both the prosecution and the defense.”  Once relaxed, the witness can focus on testifying, rather than underlying trauma.

Of course, not everyone is comfortable with dogs. Signs on the door to the District Attorney’s Office notify visitors that a dog is present. Precautions are taken to limit the possibility of allergic reactions by those with dog allergies. And Pilgrim is only introduced to someone when it is clear they are comfortable with dogs.

Pilgrim came to the courthouse from Canine Companions for Independence’s (CCFI), which is the oldest and largest assistance dog organization in the United States. CCFI provide four types of assistance dogs: service dogs that help people with disabilities perform daily tasks; hearing dogs who alert their deaf and hearing-impaired partners to important sounds; facility dogs like Pilgrim that work with clients in special settings; and skilled companions who help increase the level of independence of people with developmental and cognitive disabilities.

CCFI complete a rigorous training program before they are placed. “Maybe 50 percent of dogs who begin the program won’t complete it. All aggression has to be completely trained out of them before they can do facility work,” says Richards.

The program begins when the dogs are 8-week old puppies and are placed with volunteer puppy raisers who also complete an extensive application process. The volunteers live with the dogs and socialize and train them until they are fully grown.

Once mature, the dog returns to CCFI headquarters in Santa Rosa, California. At CCFI, professional trainers teach the dogs more advanced commands. CCFI then matches the dogs with a permanent handler. The dog and handler complete a team training program. If all goes well, the team graduates, and the dog is permanently placed with the handler.

Pilgrim with Courthouse Advocates“The best part is that Pilgrim himself is totally free,” Richards explains. CCFI provides the dogs, whose training can cost up to $45,000, at no cost to the handlers. Before Pilgrim was placed in Cartersville, plans were made to secure donated vet care and grooming for him. Local partners include Lake City Animal Hospital which provides Pilgrim’s vet care, and Ada’s Pet Grooming which keeps Pilgrim clean and looking his best.

Obtaining a trained dog is just the first step in setting up a courthouse dog program. The Courthouse Dogs Foundation (CDF), which “is dedicated to promoting justice through the use of professionally trained courthouse facility dogs to provide emotional support to everyone in the justice system,” works with courthouse personnel to plan for, establish, and administer courthouse dog programs.[1] Courthouse dog programs require collaboration and cooperation among various offices, agencies, and departments, because the dogs are designed to provide support to all players in the criminal justice system.

Pilgrim is equally available to district attorneys and defense attorneys. When he was first placed and introduced at the courthouse, Chief Assistant Public Defender Kelly Dial predicted Pilgrim’s calming influence could be enjoyed by state witnesses, defendants, and defense witnesses, all of whom might be intimidated by the courtroom.[2]

Richards says she is especially indebted to CDF founders Ellen O’Neill-Stephens and Celeste Walsen for their assistance in helping to set up the program in the Cherokee Circuit. If other circuits are considering setting up a program, CDF can provide the tools necessary to plan and budget appropriately.

“None of this could be done, of course, without the support of our District Attorney, Rosemary Greene,” Richards says. From the time Richards heard about courthouse dogs over three years ago, District Attorney Greene championed the idea. Her support garnered the necessary enthusiasm for the program, which translated into a positive response to Pilgrim from judges, public defenders, and courthouse personnel. Before he was placed, the circuit’s judges and other program participants attended training to prepare for working with Pilgrim.

“We’ve gotten nothing but positive response from Pilgrim and our program, which is the first of its kind in Georgia," says Richards.




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