Joe Amon, The Denver Post
Pella, a court house facility dog with one of the children that has helped with her training. Presley Johnston 11, was the state’s first in 2012 when she joined the 18th Judicial District. Having a therapy dog with them on the stand can help children feel safe and that they are not alone.
The teenage girl walked into Sungate Kids child advocacy center in Greenwood Village and refused to speak to anyone, including her own mother.
Another family member had been accused of sexually abusing her — the kind of case employees had seen countless times before — and the girl was deploying the best nonverbal defense she had.
“She was curled up in a ball in her chair, and she had her head down and her face covered by hair,” said Amber Urban, criminal investigator for the 18th Judicial District in Arapahoe County. “I walked out and introduced myself and said, ‘Do you like dogs?’ And she looked immediately up, wiped the hair from her face and said, ‘You have a dog?’
Pella, a brown-eyed, Lab-Golden Retriever mix, trotted into the room and calmly sat in front of the girl. From then on, she spoke regularly with Urban, giving her crucial evidence that was used to secure a conviction.
Chris Gallo remembers a similar scene — except with a 5-year-old girl who needed to testify in court against an older, trusted family member.
“This kid was just terrified,” said Gallo, chief deputy district attorney for Douglas County. “The idea of being in a room with him just shut her down. She was incapable of even speaking to me about it. So I asked Amber to help me out and bring Pella, because I’d heard of the things they can do. I’ve read the science behind it — the psychological reasons, the studies — but I swear to God it was magic.”
As she has a half-dozen other times, Pella sat at the girl’s feet in the witness box while she testified, lending her confidence and leading to a conviction. Pella has spent thousands of hours letting children stroke her head at Sungate Kids, accompanied Urban on forensic interviews, soothed and played with staff members at various facilities and even joined students at a church after 2013’s Arapahoe High School shootings.
Pella made her debut as Colorado’s first-ever “facility dog” in 2012, after lifelong animal lover and former Aurora police officer Urban worked for years to bring her to Colorado.
Since then, Pella’s ability to help elicit information, clear heads and reduce trauma has led Arapahoe County — where Urban now works — and other districts to begin adding even more facility dogs (not therapy or K-9 dogs).
Pella has played a role in more than 400 cases between Sungate, the Arapahoe County District Attorney’s office and the courthouse. And since moving to the district attorney’s office, Pella’s use has “easily doubled, so I expect those numbers will continue to increase,” Urban said.
Just last week, prosecutors announced a 24-years-to-life sentence for a Denver man convicted of sex trafficking a 15-year-old girl in the metro area — the first such case to be tried under Colorado’s 2014 updated human trafficking laws. Pella was on the stand with the victim when she testified during the trial.
“(It was) sort of full circle for dogs in that the defendant was severely injuring a dog in the past, and a dog helped the victim testify against him in this case,” Urban said, referring to a 2011 case in which defendant Matthew Witherspoon was charged with animal cruelty for stabbing a bulldog puppy five times.
Pella’s growing reputation has led Urban to field questions from overseas — including one from Finland — about her program, which Urban spent years importing from the Courthouse Dogs organization in Seattle. Since Pella’s 2012 debut, law enforcement and courts in Mesa County, Glenwood Springs and Boulder have begun using dogs for similar purposes, and Arapahoe County has added two more of its own.
Pella is also part of a growing number of facility dogs in use nationwide, which can mean anything from the 26-member Canine Airport Therapy Squad soothing passengers at Denver International Airport to dogs at Kaiser Permanente and VA clinics.
But 6-year-old Pella was the first and, according to the people she works with, still the best.
“She was the trendsetter,” said Diana Goldberg, executive director of Sungate Kids. “Pella literally reduces the trauma for kids, and we’re catching these kids at these severe moments of trauma as victims of sexual abuse and witnesses to domestic violence, rape and homicide. When they’re disclosing testimony or even just hanging out in the waiting room, they can play with her, and just the act of petting her while they’re being interviewed means that they’re associating a stressful moment with something kind and living and non-threatening.”
The national organization Canine Companions for Independence trained Pella as a service dog, then donated her to Urban as a facility dog, Urban gave Pella additional training to meet the demands of her job. At the time of her donation, Urban estimated Pella was worth about $50,000.
Pella was selected for her calm personality and her ability to adapt to situations by making herself essentially unseen — an asset when the future of someone’s life can be determined by testimony or the outcome of a criminal trial.
“People who don’t have experience with dogs might think it’s a little touchy-feely and inappropriate,” Urban said of Pella’s presence in courtrooms. “It took some convincing with some people, and not all defense attorneys like it. But we try to make her as invisible as possible and do our best to keep her hidden from the jury, since that could affect their sympathy for the alleged victim.”
Urban always gives kids and families the right to say no to Pella’s presence, whether because of allergies or the fact they don’t like dogs. But most say yes, and the results are immediate.
“One thing that surprised me was the adults,” Goldberg said. “Pella works great with kids, whether they’re traumatized or autistic or developmentally disabled. But one thing we often forget about is their caretakers. It’s equally traumatic for them, and Pella gives them a way to take care of themselves without feeling selfish.”
Unlike “apprehension dogs” — think police or drug-sniffing dogs — Pella is trained to not react to most stimuli, making her a conduit through which children and family members can funnel negative emotions.
“Dogs developed as pack animals and their goal is to keep the pack balanced,” said Urban, 43, who has two other dogs and two cats at home. “So my responsibility as her handler is to make sure she’s physically and mentally healthy and has outlets. Pella only sits still because it’s a learned behavior for her.”
Pella causes ripples wherever she goes, Urban said, especially among her co-workers who see Pella as a respite from the human trafficking, murders and other horrific crimes they deal with on a daily basis.
“I spend 100 percent of my time with her, and most of the time when I see people they say, ‘Hey, Pella!’ and then, ‘Oh … hi, Amber.’ And that’s just fine. I think it just shows the impact she’s having on people. Even if they don’t know the science behind it, they know it works.”
Original Post Here!