Angela Moe, a Professor of Sociology at Western Michigan University, purchased a golden retriever with a plan to make a positive difference in the lives of people surviving in, what can only be described as, their worst days. Without fully knowing how it would work out, and without any past experience with owning, training and working alongside a therapy dog, Angie jumped in.
Meet Sunny the Therapy Dog. He’s celebrating his 3rd birthday on February 29, 2019, and has proven to be everything Angie hoped he could be. By the age of one, Sunny earned his CGC and was a certified Therapy Dog by two years old. WMU has been very accepting of Sunny, and he is a regular in the classroom when Angie is working.
Now, he’s officially the first Therapy Dog to be permitted in Kalamazoo County 8th District court, offering comfort, courage and soothing support to victims and witnesses in the Jason Dalton proceedings. Sunny was available in the Victim/Witness areas and has developed a strong attachment to several of the survivors of one of Kalamazoo County’s greatest tragedies. “There is so much sadness. This is positive. This is positive all the time. We're bringing levity to sad circumstances,” says Angela, “He can help people who are going through the worst days of their lives.”
Angela is hoping that Kalamazoo County will be more open in the future to allowing dogs in the actual courtroom, something that has never been done. The only barrier between allowing therapy dogs to offer support to victims in the courtroom are the Judges themselves.
“Victims, they have to tell their story so many times. Can’t we make it a little bit easier?”
Only about 1/3 of Michigan courtrooms allow therapy dogs, despite there being no law preventing it. The decision is at the sole discretion of the Judge presiding over the case. If given permission, a therapy dog could go into a witness box and silently comfort the witness during testimony. For now, Sunny has been limited to the victim advocacy areas of the prosecutor’s office.
Angela believes that part of the fear of letting a dog into the courtroom is that it is new and that the judge may not know what to expect. She explained to me that allowing a dog into a courtroom does not mean that the dog has an all-access pass and that permission could be granted on a case-by-case basis. She also emphasizes that in many cases, no one would even know the dog was there. Sunny could be stationed behind the witness stand, waiting for the witness to arrive, out of sight of everyone except the victim, and remain there during the testimony to not interrupt the proceedings.
“The entire criminal justice system is not set up to support victims. This is a simple, natural, informal way to help people.”
How can you help? Angela says that getting the word out about Sunny and therapy dogs is very helpful. Anyone who knows someone working in the courthouse, or the Judges themselves, are encouraged to offer words of support for allowing therapy dogs into the courtroom. In the meantime, Sunny and Angie will continue to provide behind-the-scenes comfort to those who need a silent and soft friend to support them.
THERAPY DOG FACTS
Therapy dogs are not service dogs, and are not protected under Americans with Disabilities Act the way service animals are.
Any type of dog could be a therapy dog, but Sunny was specifically selected by his breeding for a higher likelihood of success.
15 Hours of service is a long week for Sunny. His owner/handler is able to see his stress cues, and knows when to call it a day.
Therapy animals and handlers are generally a volunteer-based service, however in some instances compensation is provided.
Certification for therapy animals is available through several credible organizations. Sunny is certified through Pet Partners, which is a nonprofit.
Sunny wears his vest when he is working, and seems to understand that he is on the job when the vest is on. Some of the “bling” on his vest was given to him by the people he’s comforted.
One of things most surprising things about working with a therapy dog to Sunny’s owner/handler, Angie, was the emotional toll Sunny’s interactions would have on herself.