Deaf therapy dog helps children get justice
Dogs earned the title “man’s best friend” for good reason. Just like we did tens of thousands of years ago, many of us still depend on our canine companions, though often in unexpected ways. Here’s the story of one special dog and the incredible difference he’s made for children during some of the most difficult and vulnerable moments in their lives.
On the witness stand
Unseen to the rest of the courtroom, the young girl’s hands fidget as she grasps a red leash. She’s forced to undergo one of the most trying and traumatic experiences imaginable — facing the man who hurt her and making sure he gets the justice he deserves.
While she fights back tears and answers the lawyer’s questions, she sits on the stand alone — except for the 5-year-old boxer that lays at her feet, comforting her in her time of need.
The boxer’s name is Karl and, for him, this is familiar territory. He’s a star member of the K-9th Circuit Program in Florida, an organization that pairs support canines with children required to testify in court.
Wearing a blue hat and vest with his name embroidered on the side, he brings a smile to almost everyone who sees him. But his job is very serious.
Joanne Hart-Rittenhouse had already rescued and raised three boxers as therapy dogs before Karl entered her life. It’s a hard, but rewarding process. If you’re not familiar, therapy dogs are uniquely docile and undergo training to be able to provide companionship in volunteer settings like hospitals and schools.
Joanne hadn’t planned on taking on a fourth dog — but when she received an urgent call from a breeder, Karl’s unique predicament made her change her mind immediately.
He was born deaf
“This breeder called and said, ‘I have this little deaf white puppy, he’s 3 weeks old, I need to place him,’” Hart-Rittenhouse recalled. “I said I already had three dogs and I didn’t want any more and I wouldn’t know what to do with a deaf dog. And she said, ‘OK, then I’m going to put him to sleep.’ So, needless to say, we couldn’t let that happen.”
Joanne had no idea how to raise and train a deaf dog, so she enlisted the help of a behaviorist.
Finding a way to communicate
Training a dog to obey commands is hard in itself, but how do you train a dog that can’t hear you? Deaf dogs are startled easily — they can’t hear people approaching, so they’re often caught unawares when someone touches them. For this reason, many people are fearful and unwilling to adopt a deaf dog.
But training a dog like Karl is difficult, not impossible. Patience, and allowing the dog to learn to use its other senses, is critical. Gradually, Karl learned to trust Joanne. Fortunately Joanne already knew some sign language from bringing her other dogs to volunteer at the National Deaf Academy.
A quick learner
Once the pair were able to form a bond, Karl proved himself to be a great student. “He learned 10 signs, and then he learned 10 more,” Hart-Rittenhouse said. “Now he’s up over 100 signs in American Sign Language.”
It didn’t take long for Joanne to recognize that Karl had some unique skills and talent that would prove especially useful.
Karl is a special boy
Naturally, Karl was a perfect match for the children at the National Deaf Academy. “He’s great with children, he loves going to the Deaf Academy, he loves special needs children,” Hart-Rittenhouse said.
“He listens, he’s a real good listener, and he has a calming effect on children, especially children with disabilities,” she continued. Karl’s empathetic nature and ability to put distressed children at ease made him a perfect candidate for another program …
K-9th Circuit Program
Witness testimony in court is often necessary to ensure perpetrators of violence and abuse are punished in the judicial system. While this process is incredibly important in maintaining a just and fair society, it can be very hard on the witness, especially when that witness is a young child.
The K-9th Circuit Program, developed by Judge Turner of the Ninth Circuit, addresses the need for more “trauma-sensitive” courtrooms across the nation by pairing young witnesses with therapy dogs.
Why are dogs such good companions in these situations?
People love dogs — and they seem to love us, too. Recent studies appear to confirm that dogs feel empathy toward their human masters. In a recent study performed by Springer’s scientific journal, Learning & Behavior, researchers found that dogs were much more likely to open a door to reach their owner when they heard them calling out in distress than if they were humming. Most dogs opened the door quickest if their owner was crying.
According to the Ninth Circuit website, “studies show that people are better able to recollect facts and provide more accurate information regarding traumatic events when they are calm and feel safe.” This means that not only does having a dog help to ease the discomfort of an emotionally distraught witness, it also makes their testimony more accurate.
Karl’s disability may actually help him with his job
Courtrooms are notoriously stressful environments. Compounding the stress of a high-stakes situation are the large crowds, high levels of activity, and loud noises. When Karl’s companions take the witness stand, Karl lays at their feet and sees little of what’s going on outside of the wooden enclosure.
For him, all he needs to do is lie down and relax — a simple task, but it makes a world of difference for his human companions. Hart-Rittenhouse calls the ability for a dog to remain calm in the courtroom being “bomb-proof,” which is a skill not every therapy dog has.
Weighing in at 65 pounds, Karl is a large dog, especially in the eyes of a small child. Joanne suspects that having a big dog in their corner helps the children feel safe. “Most of them won’t testify, won’t go through a deposition, if they don’t have a dog beside them,” Hart-Rittenhouse told News-13.
While Karl is a gentle giant, without a vicious bone in his body, many of the children feel as though he is their protector. “One of the questions that a child had asked me, was if the person who had hurt her, who was in the courtroom tries to hurt me, will Karl protect me?” Hart-Rittenhouse explained.
When the witness is called to the stand, the child and the dog enter the courtroom before the jury is seated. Karl is invisible to the entire courtroom, save for the small child.
Karl rests at the child’s feet as they recount the harrowing story to a group of complete strangers, pointing out the person who hurt them.
One little girl’s testimony was especially strenuous — she was called to the stand on several separate occasions for hours at a time. To ease her stress, she took off her shoes and rubbed her feet on Karl’s back. But this isn’t where Karl’s job starts and ends …
Every step of the way
When someone requests a courtroom therapy dog like Karl, they are assigned a team consisting of the dog and its handler to appear with the child at all court appearances, including depositions, hearings, and the trial itself. According to Joanne Hart-Rittenhouse, the process often extends further.
“We’ll be there as long as the child wants Karl to stay in their life,” she said. “He’s helped a lot of children.”
How Karl changed one scared little girl’s life
Carol Feiner recalls how she became a courtroom dog handler for a deeply personal reason — a girl she had guardianship over was assaulted. Feiner saw firsthand the emotional damage that was done to the child.
“She did not want to go to court at all, she didn’t want to press charges,” Feiner said. “But she was having so many effects, such as PTSD, very bad anxiety, nightmares and things. The courtroom dog really gave her courage to go through with this.”
“I couldn’t even get her out of the car when she first started,” Feiner said about her ward. “Toward the end she was getting in the car just to go see Karl, never mind the deposition or the trial — it was to see Karl … Karl has done a lot for her, giving her self-confidence back and actually her trust back in people, through this dog.”
According to Feiner and Hart-Rittenhouse, Karl has made a dramatic difference in these children’s lives, and ensured that multiple criminals ended up behind bars.
Everyone loves Karl
Karl isn’t just popular with the children. Joanne says that he has a calming effect on practically everyone that encounters him, especially in a courtroom, where stress levels run high. Karl makes friends everywhere he goes — oftentimes courtroom staff will approach the boxer to say hi.
Hart-Rittenhouse believes that everyone benefits from having dogs around. “Karl has a calming effect, as any dog does with children that are stressed out, even with adults that are stressed out. It helps to have a dog by your side.”
Karl’s other ventures
Karl’s a busy dog — the courthouse isn’t the only place he volunteers. When he’s not in court, you can often find him at a nearby hospice center for children. The kids love reading to him, even if he can’t hear — he loves the attention.
Often you’ll see Karl with his own coloring book, which teaches kids the proper way to approach and care for animals.
It’s remarkable how one dog can make such a difference in so many lives. He’s got an important job, so thankfully he doesn’t have to do it alone …
Companions for Courage
Karl’s part of a volunteer team called Companions for Courage, which consists of 16 therapy dogs, one therapy cat, and their handlers, who travel to different courthouses all over Central Florida.
The animal and handler meet with the child before the court date to form a bond. As they walk in the courtroom, the dog is tethered to a dual leash — one handle is held by the handler, the other by the child.
Another one of these special dogs is named Jake.
One of Karl’s partners is a large white Labrador named Jake. Judge Turner describes a time when Jake gave a young girl the confidence to testify against her abuser. “I just had a 10-year-old girl testify,” Turner said. “She had to describe things that no child at that age should even know about, let alone have to talk about in court.”
Turner believes Jake helped her get through the ordeal, a sentiment that Jake’s handler Dan Martin echoed. “I saw every time that she was starting to get nervous, she would put her hand down and touch Jake,” he said. “Jake was wonderful. I was traumatized.”
Other special dogs that make a difference
The courtroom or a hospital aren’t the only places a special dog can help out. One such canine found his purpose in the University of North Carolina sports program. His name is REMINGTON (yes, it’s spelled with all caps).
REMI was trained as a therapy dog for a client in Maryland. At the last minute, however, that job fell through. Around this time, baseball players at UNC had expressed an interest in bringing puppies to visit children in hospitals. However, hospitals have strict rules about the dogs that can be taken inside their walls …
The timing was perfect
Just as Terri Jo Rucinski, head trainer for the UNC baseball team, put in an application for a therapy dog, REMINGTON became available for adoption.
REMINGTON has had a very interesting upbringing.
He was trained in a West Virginia prison as part of a program where prisoners trained puppies. The inmates were able to teach him over 100 commands — this comes in handy on the baseball diamond.
One talented pup
REMINGTON brings baseballs to the umpire, brings water bottles to home plate, and paw-bumps players as they pass by. But according to Rucinski, he’s much more valuable to the team than as just a performer of some impressive tricks.
Players under lots of stress and pressure turn to REMI when they need to clear their mind. He’s an expert at recognizing and easing stress. Rucinski said that he’s approached players on the opposing team on several occasions. At first she was puzzled, but later learned that the players had recently been benched.
REMINGTON helps the injured players
Rucinski describes the experience of one freshman player who was especially stressed and anxious about starting school and joining the team. REMINGTON hardly left the player’s side for weeks. “He’s very intuitive,” she said.
When players are injured and begin a physical therapy routine, REMI can often be found nearby. Mike Fox, the UNC coach, says this helps the injured players immensely. “That’s a tough place to be sometimes, especially when you’re having to be in there every day,” he said. “So any sort of good feeling, any sort of good distraction can be a good thing, sort of take your mind off of your injury, or your long rehab, or whatever’s bothering you.”
Handling the fame
REMINGTON’s appearances at NCAA games quickly turned him into a celebrity, but Terri Jo Rucinski says that the fame hasn’t gone to the retriever’s head. “REMI has no idea,” she said. “He’s the same. He’s really the same dog.”
The only problem Rucinski complains about is that people often walk up and pet REMINGTON without asking first — yes, he’s a dog, but he’s a working dog.
Branching out into other sports and inspiring others
When he’s not on the baseball diamond, REMI stays busy. His Instagram is full of pictures of him visiting with UNC team members of all different sports, other campuses, and hospitals and shelters.
Rucinski says that, after seeing the benefits, other trainers have contacted her to ask about bringing a therapy dog to their schools as well — we may soon see a lot more of these remarkable dogs.