Therapy dogs

Madison Grantham of the Russell County District Attorney's Office, left, stands with dog Josette, while Tamara Martin of the Office of Prosecution Services stands with Willow.

An expanded initiative with a canine component may bring comfort to young crime victims in Alabama, state officials announced recently.

The Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs recently provided a $700,000 grant to the Alabama Office of Prosecutorial Services as part of a program that uses dogs to provide a calming presence for those asked to share painful stories of physical or sexual assault. The program is called HERO, which is an acronym for Helping Every Survivor Realize Their Opportunity and Strength.

HERO is being endorsed by the Alabama District Attorney's Association and locally by Limestone County District Attorney Brian Jones.

Jones said the DA's Association has been working for a while to expand the program in bigger counties. He said the Limestone County Child Advocacy Center has been training a puppy to comfort young victims, though those efforts aren't affiliated with the state program.

“We'll put our name on that list in 2020,” Jones said.

He said the program is useful because it offers victims comfort in a stressful times.

“We've been trying a lot of sexual abuse cases, and for the dog to be with that child in court and to give that measure of comfort has made a difference in the demonstrations and testimonies for DA's who have used the dogs,” he said. “There is a noticeable difference in a child witness who is petting a dog.”

Jones said the program is just one more way the state DA's Association is working on behalf of crime victims. He's hoping to be awarded a grant to hire more victim service officers.

“With a lot of cases coming and going, and the lag time in trials, we want to reach out to victims as much as possible to not only assist them, but also comfort them as they work their way through the system because it can be harsh, confusing and stressful,” he said. “Victims service officers and the dogs are designed to help victims.”

About the program

Representatives from the state OPS announced the expansion of the program Monday at a press conference in Montgomery. Two of the service dogs, Josette and Willow, were present along with their respective trainers, Madison Grantham of the Russell County District Attorney's Office and Tamara Martin of the OPS.

Willow is the first dog in Alabama specifically trained to be a calming presence for traumatized victims.

“The training starts at birth,” said Martin, who is Willow’s five-year pal and handler. “(The dogs) are conditioned to handle the stress, loud noises and things other dogs would consider threatening. They are trained to associate certain sounds with pleasure rather than sounds they should be afraid of.”

Willow is no longer alone as the only dog certified to work with crime victims in Alabama. Four other facility dogs are now on the job. They will be joined by two additional dogs in August.

Within a year, there could be as many as 12 trained and certified dogs assisting crime victims, spread throughout the state, the ADAA and OPS announced at the press conference.

Along with the ADECA grant, the program is also being assisted by Canine Companions for Independence, a national nonprofit that provides and trains the dogs. Training for each dog costs about $50,000, Martin said. Canine Companions places the dogs free of charge.

In addition to Willow, who is based in Montgomery, facility dogs are currently operating out of Dothan, Clanton, Phenix City and Huntsville. Next month, Lauderdale County and Shelby County will get dogs. Etowah, Covington, Baldwin, Tallapoosa and Morgan counties could get dogs within a year, according to Trisha Mellberg, deputy executive for the OPS and the DA Association.

“These dogs are amazing,” Mellberg said. “We applied for the ADECA grant because we have seen how these dogs help victims as they have to relive the very worst moments of their lives. It’s hard especially for children to talk about what happened to them to strangers. These dogs put them at ease so they are comfortable enough to tell about their experiences.”

Shelby County District Attorney Jill Lee, president of the Alabama District Attorneys Association, is one of the DAs whose circuit is getting a dog next month.

“We are just thrilled,” Lee said. “We’ve seen Willow in action in Shelby County and witnessed firsthand what a difference she made with the victims. This grant means not only our circuit, but others across Alabama as well, will have these wonderful friends of the court available when needed.”