Canines offer veterans comfort in the courtroom

For the past year, therapy dogs have been attending veterans court in Erie County, Pa.


By MADELEINE O'NEILL | Erie Times-News, Pa. (Tribune News Service) | Published: December 16, 2016

The hallway outside Erie County's Veterans Court can get boisterous at times.

The veterans talk and laugh as they mingle before the weekly court sessions each Tuesday. And they interact with Cooper and Abby, two therapy dogs who take turns attending Veterans Court to help the defendants feel more comfortable.

For Rachel Sykes, a law clerk for Judge Robert A. Sambroak Jr., who oversees Veterans Court, the hallway conversations on the second floor of the Erie County Courthouse are a good sign.

"We always joke about how loud [the veterans] are in the hallway before court, but it's because they talk to each other," she said. Skyes thinks having familiar therapy dogs present helped initiate that camaraderie.

"They sort of became the staple and the vets really started opening up and communicating with each other," she said.

Veterans Court is aimed at dealing with the addiction and mental health issues that can lead veterans to commit crimes. Veterans who are approved for the treatment court get a chance to stay out of prison by participating in treatment programs and meeting other supervision requirements.

The veterans are assigned a volunteer mentor, also a veteran, who offers guidance and support throughout the process.

"It gives them the support that they need to know that they're not alone," Sykes said of the treatment court. "While acknowledging that they are involved in the criminal justice system, it gives them a way to better themselves."

And, for about a year, therapy dogs have attended the court's weekly sessions, where vets go before Sambroak to discuss their progress. Fourteen veterans are currently enrolled in Veterans Court, and three have graduated since the court began in January 2015.

Sambroak considers the therapy dogs a success.

"They really calm some of the vets down," he said. "It's just a really joyful thing to see."

Cooper, a 7-year-old Dalmatian, attends court with his owner, Cathy Palovcsik.

"I try to arrive early so that he's there in the hallway as each veteran and the mentors arrive, so that he can ... help them relax," Palovcsik said. "They all seem to want to stop and at least pet him."

Palovcsik said Cooper had to pass tests in obedience and temperament to be certified as a therapy dog.

The veterans have also gotten to know Abby, an 8-year-old miniature Labrador-poodle mix, who attends court with her owner, Ann Gress.

The dogs mostly remain in the court's gallery, but they are free to walk around there while court is in session. Cooper is known for whacking his tail against the wooden seating and whining occasionally.

"He's done some funny things before," said Michael Howard, a veteran who has participated in Veterans Court for the past year. "Sat next to people, demanded attention. Everyone laughs."

Howard, 26, said the treatment court has offered him rehabilitation, rather than punishment.

"If you just go to jail, you don't really fix anything," he said. "Just because you relapse doesn't mean you're off the deep end, and this is a program that recognizes that and works with you."

Having dogs present eases the tension that can develop in the courtroom, he said.

"Everybody likes to pet a dog," Howard said.

Sykes helped bring the dogs to Veterans Court by coordinating with Therapy Dogs United, a northwestern-Pennsylvania-based charity that connects therapy dogs with those who need them at schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and at other locations.

The Veterans Court therapy dogs are not the only ones who visit the Erie County Courthouse. They also provide comfort to children at dependency hearings, a program that preceded and later spread to Veterans Court. Erie County President Judge John J. Trucilla was an early proponent of the program.

"I can't tell you how much joy they bring," Trucilla said. "When you have that atmosphere, it really seems to be more conducive to the type of rehabilitation and achieving the goals we're trying to accomplish."

And dogs aren't the only animals who help with Veterans Court. Several veterans have attended the Blended Spirits Ranch in Fairview Township, which offers horse therapy. Veterans who participate are paired with a horse and attend weekly training sessions, where they learn skills like discipline and building trust.

"We provide a safe place for them to be so that they can start feeling safe enough to explore what's going on inside," said Sandy Long, the executive director of Blended Spirits.

At the courthouse, the therapy dogs will continue giving the veterans support as they work toward rehabilitation at their weekly sessions.

Anthony Robison, an Army and National Guard veteran who has been enrolled in Veterans Court for a year, said he finds comfort in spending time with his dog, Bigens. The therapy dogs have the same calming effect on him, he said.

"It gives us a little life, a little spark in our day," said Robison, 54. "Dogs help relieve stress, and stress is part of our problems coming out of the service."

Madeleine O'Neill can be reached at 870-1728 or by email. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/ETNoneill.

©2016 the Erie Times-News (Erie, Pa.)
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