DA's Office touts success of facility dog program
Some of these court processes can be emotional and stressful and a therapy animal can provide a calming presence.
Rachael is assigned to the Western Colorado Center for Children and the Mesa County Justice Center. The facility dog program is entirely grant-funded.
“She’s trained to work around large groups of people, specifically children, who can be loud, jerky, touchy, she’s trained to handle all of that,” Rachael’s handler Ashley Edstrom said.
Rachael works in four different scenarios, Edstrom said, which include forensic interviews at the Western Colorado Center for Children, when children talk to law enforcement for the first time. They also include medical exams, which Rachael can be in the room for, and therapy sessions, as well as court sessions.
“She can work for long periods of time, for example in a courtroom she can be in the witness box for two hours, two and a half hours, not make a sound, not move, and she’s fine with that,” Edstrom said. “She can be in a forensic interview here at the center for two hours, three hours, and be fine with that.”
Rachael was donated to the DA’s Office by Canine Companions and she has worked as a facility dog in Mesa County for three years. Rachael is the DA’s Office’s second dog. The first, Tillie, started in 2016 and left in 2019 upon the retirement of her handler. Tillie now works in Arizona.
“These dogs are bred for low reactivity, low prey drive, so they can work in crowds of people and not be reactive to things going on,” Edstrom said.
Rachael was bred, raised and trained in California by Canine Companions, a nonprofit organization that provides assistance dogs, to be a facility dog, Edstrom said.
Canine Companions selected Rachael for the DA’s Office after the DA’s Office put together criteria for what they wanted, Edstrom said.
“I went out to California and worked with several different dogs over a period of two weeks,” Edstrom said. “And then they kind of see which dog you’re bonding with, which dog is responding to you, and that’s how they pick.”
Rachael was raised as a puppy in a prison program near San Diego. That’s where she learned basic commands. She was also socialized by a family with foster children.
After 18 months in the prison program, Rachael went to professional training for seven months to learn high-level commands, Edstrom said.
Rachael is 5 years old and is 100% Labrador, Edstrom said, and has been shown at American Kennel Club competitions for obedience and rally. She has 11 titles, Edstrom said.
Edstrom said a lot of the behaviors translate between competing in the obedience competitions and being a facility dog.
Rachael is good at reading situations and acting accordingly, especially with children, Edstrom said, which isn’t something she is trained to do.
“She will take direction from anybody. I don’t have to be there,” Edstrom said.
HELPING WITH WITNESSES
“You don’t want to go to a strange place, talk to adults you’ve never met before about something bad. Having a dog there makes it so much easier for these kids,” Edstrom said.
Rachael can even be in the witness box with the witness, with a judge’s permission. Edstrom said they try to keep Rachael out of sight from the jury, although that isn’t a requirement
“We don’t want the jurors going, ‘oh, cute dog,’ ” Edstrom said. “We want the jurors to pay attention to what the witness is saying.”
Rachael also serves as a neutral party because, as a dog, she can’t repeat what she hears.
“She doesn’t care one way or the other what the outcome is, she’s there to be a support to the child,” Edstrom said.
District Attorney Dan Rubinstein said Rachael can help prosecutors get evidence from witnesses who can explain things better because Rachael makes them comfortable.
“Our office has a much higher success rate in trial on sex assault on a child cases than the other jurisdictions in the state,” Rubinstein said. “Most of the time, our evidence on those cases is largely or exclusively a child saying ‘here’s what happened.’ ”
That can come in a variety of forms, Rubinstein said, including playing a video interview, or an outcry to a teacher or parent.
“Usually, it’s their ability to properly explain what occurred to them in enough detail that can convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. Getting a child calm enough and relaxed enough to be able to have that level of detail is always the biggest hurdle for us in trial, and the facility dog program has been very successful in just allowing kids to be relaxed or at ease so they can explain those things.”
During the past three years, Rachael has helped with 505 child visits, 142 hours in court, 216 hours of forensic interviews, 99 hours of therapy sessions, and has been in the witness box 21 times.
Rachael is also available for the defense, Rubinstein said.
“We have had on occasion had defense attorneys ask us if they can use our facility dog for a child witness, and our answer is ‘yes,’ “ Rubinstein said. “We want to make sure that kids do not have any trauma from the court system and if that means allowing them to be used for a defense case, that’s OK.”
RACHAEL AT HOME
Rachael is not a service dog, and so she is free to behave like a regular dog when she’s not working.
“And she is different from a service dog in that it’s OK for people to pet her, it’s OK for people to talk to her.” Edstrom said. “We don’t ever discourage that with kids.”
Rachael lives at Edstrom’s house with her other dog and cats, and is a “regular dog” at home.
“When this vest comes off, she’s no longer working, she runs and plays with my other dog, she has toys, she has friends, she’s just a regular dog,” Edstrom said.