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Therapy dogs lend a paw to court case victims

Penelope is a therapy dog in the court dog program.

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Friday, July 12, 2013, 9:56 p.m.

Grace Coleman witnessed the soothing powers of her dog Penelope three years ago when a shy boy asked if he could pet her.

“He said, ‘I don't want to go into counseling today,' ” said Coleman, executive director of Crisis Center North, which helps victims of domestic violence. “I said, ‘Well, you know, Penelope really wants to go, but she's a dog; she can't go without a human. Do you think you could take her in?'

“Later the counselor told me that they covered more ground that session than they had in six months.”

Thanks to that track record, Penelope is the rising star of Allegheny County's first court dog program serving victims of domestic violence.

The 4-year-old spaniel mix previously worked only with clients in therapy at Crisis Center North but now will also be a canine companion for abuse victims in the court system, officials said.

“Court can be very stressful for victims,” Coleman said. “We're hoping that with a therapy dog being there, it will lessen victims' anxieties and stresses.”

The program will be run by the crisis center and the offices of Allegheny District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., Common Pleas Court President Judge Donna Jo McDaniel, District Judge Anthony W. Saveikis, officials said.

“When most people hear about a dog's presence in the courthouse, they have a pet dog in mind. These dogs are very different from that. They're trained, bred and selected for this type of work,” said Ellen O'Neill-Stephens, a former prosecutor and founder of the Courthouse Dogs Foundation outside Seattle.

“The wonderful thing about these dogs is that when you take off their vest and throw a ball, they're just like regular Labs and golden retrievers.”

District Justice Gene Ricciardi of the South Side applauded the idea.

For years, Ricciardi has brought his dogs — first Lucy, a Chihuahua/dachshund mix, and now Tank, a 16-pound Maltese/poodle mix — to his courtroom. His lapdogs help nervous witnesses, from teenage bullying victims to frail grandmothers, find their voices on the stand, he said.

“They bring a sense of calmness,” Ricciardi said. “I had this woman, she was 75 to 85 years old, and she was testifying against this very strong, young man. She was intimidated. Well, I put that dog on her lap, and I couldn't stop her. She told her story.”

Therapy dogs go through hours of training and must pass strict tests and evaluations to gain certification. They must love people, follow orders and always stay calm, trainers said.

“It's wonderful to hear that people are using some of the findings we've known for years, that therapy dogs provide great calming benefits for people of all ages,” said Gretchen Fieser, spokeswoman for the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society and a therapy dog owner.

“Petting or interacting with a pet lowers blood pressure, respiration rate, heart rate — all of our body systems slow down when interacting with a well-behaved animal,” Fieser said. “This is a very good idea.”

Chris Togneri is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Staff writer Adam Brandolph contributed to this report.

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