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Comfort in the courtroom

LIHUE — For victims of crimes and witnesses attending court proceedings, navigating the criminal justice system can be intimidating, even scary at times.

But it doesn’t have to be.

Meet Ollie, a courthouse facility dog who joined the Kauai Office of the Prosecuting Attorney as the newest team member Tuesday.

“The criminal justice system can be brutal. It can be a place of great emotional stress. The adversarial process can make that even worse and going through that process can be emotionally damaging,” said Courthouse Dogs Founder Ellen O’Neill-Stephens. “When these dogs are present, they dial down the emotional stress and give people a positive association with the process.”

O’Neill-Stephens is a retired senior deputy prosecuting attorney with 26 years of experience and said courtroom dogs offer comfort by providing emotional support to victims and witnesses at court proceedings.

Prosecuting Attorney Justin Kollar said courthouse facility dogs help victims and witnesses feel comfortable enough to tell their stories to investigators and in court.

Ollie was trained by Assistance Dogs of Hawaii to do just that.

“When a traumatized witness is describing a traumatic event, they start experiencing the same emotions that they had at the time the incident occurred,” O’Neill-Stephens said. “That could interfere with their ability to speak if they get choked up, but when these dogs calm down people so that they are able talk about it then it makes it easier and the jury gets that information. So we say that they facilitate the fact-finding process.”

Ollie is trained to rest his head on a person’s lap or put his paws on someone’s leg, said deputy prosecutor Joanne Sheng, Ollie’s handler.

Although all costs associated with raising and training Ollie are borne by Assistance Dogs of Hawaii, which remains the owner of the dog through its working life, Sheng will be responsible for daily grooming, food and veterinary costs.

Kollar said Ollie will assist witnesses in all kinds of court proceedings, whether it be at trial, or decisions on motions. He’ll even be available to assist witnesses while they await to testify in court, he said.

O’Neill-Stephens said one problem could arise in criminal cases with the dogs.

“We don’t want the presence of the dog to create legal issues, particularly in criminal cases,” she said. “Because defense attorneys are concerned that when a jury sees that they are going to feel more affinity for this prosecution witness. We have the witness and the dog enter the courtroom outside the presence of the jury and then the jury comes in and the witness testifies and then the jury goes out and they leave.”

Since the dogs are so well-trained, they can lie in the witness box for hours outside of their view as to not cause a distraction, O’Neill-Stephens said.

Ollie was specially bred, socialized and trained while at the ADH campus on Maui. Sheng also recently completed a week-long intensive training with Ollie at the campus.

Ollie joins 103 other courthouse facility dogs in 31 states. His dog pals on Neighbor Islands are Pono and Faith, who assist the prosecutor offices on Oahu and the Big Island, and Jake, the facility dog employed by the Honolulu Children’s Justice Center.

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