Bannock County to add trained assistance dog to help with victim and witness testimony

Photo courtesy of Bannock County Prosecutor's Office  The Bannock County Prosecutor’s Office will add a highly trained assistance dog to its staff to assist victims and witnesses with providing testimony. Temporarily named Canine X, the 2-year-old Labrador retriever will arrive in Pocatello in late April.

Photo courtesy of Bannock County Prosecutor’s Office
The Bannock County Prosecutor’s Office will add a highly trained assistance dog to its staff to assist victims and witnesses with providing testimony. Temporarily named Canine X, the 2-year-old Labrador retriever will arrive in Pocatello in late April.

By Shelbie Harris, sharris@journalnet.com

POCATELLO — He sits on command, walks on four legs and will soon become the newest staff member of the Bannock County Prosecutor’s Office.

To help victims and witnesses involved in criminal cases feel more comfortable throughout the court process, Bannock County Victim and Witness Coordinator Tamela Manhart has solicited the services of a highly trained assistance dog, temporarily named Canine X.

“The court judicial process is not fast, it’s a slow process,” Manhart said. “There can be resets in cases and this is something that can retraumatize victims. … Whether it be child sex cases (or) homicides, there are many victims that could really benefit by having a courthouse dog be with them through the process of going to court.”

Manhart has worked with victims in court cases in various locations for the last 11 years, spending nearly the last three years in Bannock County. She said convincing Bannock County Prosecutor Steve Herzog of the benefits an assistance dog would bring to the courthouse was the easy part. Finding a facility that trained the dog with the certifications required by Idaho statutes was the most difficult aspect of the process.

Last year, Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter signed a bill into law in March that allowed facility dogs to remain with children on the witness stand in criminal matters and non-criminal cases involving child abuse or neglect, unless a judge finds it would prejudice a defendant’s constitutional rights.

That legislation was sponsored by Idaho Sen. Shawn Keough R-Sandpoint.

“I think that is terrific news that people in Pocatello will have the benefit of working with a facility dog because that was exactly what we were hoping for when we put the legislation together,” Keough said about Bannock County’s new assistance dog.

“The facility dog in Sandpoint has been really valuable working with folks that are in traumatic circumstances. Having a facility dog be in the courtroom under the witness stand makes it a better situation for the witness.”

After being on a waiting list for a few years now, Manhart received a call from National Education for Assistance Dog Services, or NEADS, an organization that trains world-class service dogs. After a Skype interview a few weeks later, Manhart’s application was approved.

“It’s actually a long process as far as you need to find the right place,” Manhart said. “I went to courthousedogs.org, filled out an application with several different places and due to the legislation passed last year the dogs have to have certain credentials to be working in the courthouse around people.”

Ellen O’Neill-Stephens is the founder of courthousedogs.org and a retired prosecuting attorney. She said she has seen hundreds of individuals suffer during the traumatic process of court proceedings over 26 years spent in the courthouse, particularly suffering among women and children.

“Using these dogs is a way to mitigate that suffering,” O’Neill-Stephens said. “This gives them a positive memory of the process.”

She continued, “We are changing the legal system one dog at a time.”

Bannock will become the third county in the state to receive the benefits of a highly trained assistance dog, Manhart said. In working with other victim and witness coordinators across the state, Manhart said it was apparent how much of an advantage courthouse dogs are in serious or traumatic cases.

“The dog would actually stay up on the stand with the person who has to testify,” Manhart said. “So many times with our victims we have such heartfelt feelings for them but we don’t know what to say or do. This is something that I can’t do for them but in a way I am providing them an additional resource that they can use to their benefit.”

To offset the cost of raising and training the dog, Manhart said NEADS has asked for $8,000, adding that the funds will come from several fundraising events and no taxpayer dollars will be used.

Furthermore, the Alpine Animal Hospital in Chubbuck has sponsored the dog for life, meaning it will provide the dog’s veterinary care free of charge.

“Anybody will benefit from having their stress reduced,” Herzog said. “This will make it easier for people to come to the courthouse if they know that there is someone, or something, that is there that they can really connect to. People don’t like coming to the courthouse, but with this dog, they might.”