Paws in proceedings

By Sophie Suelzle, MLS Digital Communications Officer

In courts as well as universities, support dogs are helping to calm nerves and minimise trauma.

Riley the Juris Dogtor
Riley the ‘Juris Dogtor’ with owner Cameron Rowe. Image credit: Peter Glenane

After five years of hard work, Riley the ‘Juris Dogtor’ is graduating from Melbourne Law School. A well-loved member of MLS, the 10 year-old black standard poodle and certified therapy dog is retiring at the end of this year.

Each Thursday, Riley roams the corridors of MLS as part of a wellbeing program run by not-for-profit group Delta Society Australia. He plays with students, helping to relieve the stress and anxiety that can often accompany studying law.

Owner Cameron Rowe attests to the positive effect Riley has. “Quite often you will hear people say, ‘Oh, I really needed to see him today’, or ‘It’s been a really tough week’. They tell me that it has made their day so much better and they go off with a little bit more of a bounce in their step.

“And this building isn’t just limited to law students – we have students from other faculties coming in too and saying, ‘Oh, I wish we had a dog!’ or ‘I’m coming over here on Thursdays!’”

It is not surprising, then, that the use of therapy and support dogs is on the rise, not only in universities but in Australia’s justice system.

After experiencing the stress of giving evidence first-hand, Tessa Stow, owner of therapy dog training facility K9 Support, developed a pilot support dog program with Victoria’s Office of Public Prosecutions. The overwhelmingly positive response encouraged Stow to start the charity Court Dogs Victoria
in 2018.

Coop, a five-year-old black Labrador, is the face of Court Dogs Victoria. Trained from eight weeks of age to work with vulnerable witnesses, including victims of sexual assault and young children, she was the first dog allowed into an Australian court. Coop sits with clients in the remote witness room where they can pat her and hold her lead. When she senses a client is emotionally agitated, she responds by putting her paw or head on their lap. Her calm and intuitive nature helps witnesses stay grounded when retelling their experiences.

“Coop is able to lower blood pressure and raise dopamine and oxytocin levels in most witnesses, helping them avoid having flashbacks and shutting down,” Stow says. “This helps claimants get through their evidence quicker and lets the court continue with the case.” Coop has since helped in more than 100 cases, including supporting those who gave evidence in the Cardinal George Pell committal hearing in 2018.

Court Dogs Victoria is currently involved in a pilot program supporting court staff with vicarious trauma. “We have found there is a great need for people working in the justice system – courts, police stations and law firms – to find new ways to deal with the trauma they face every day,” says Stow.

However, like Riley, Coop is retiring this year. And with court dog training lasting two years and costing approximately $30,000 per dog, it is becoming increasingly difficult to supply dogs for free. “The need for support dogs is great, but unfortunately the funds are small,” says Stow.

It is still uncertain who will fill the position of Juris Dogtor in 2020, however Rowe has no doubt that whoever takes Riley’s place will contribute considerably to the fabric of university life. “We are naturally inclined to have animals around us,” he says.

As for Riley, Rowe is looking forward to spending time with him in the poodle’s golden years. “I have a farm in the Otways, so he can just go and lay in a field, chase the ball in the orchard, sit in the rain – as you do,” he chuckles, scratching Riley’s curly head.

“It’s time for him to relax.”

Visit Court Dogs Victoria and Delta Society Australia for more information on how to support these organisations. The above photo was first published in the September 2015 edition of the Law Institute Journal.

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 22, November 2019