WOODLAND — Say “aloha” to Aloha.
At 5 1/2 months old, the Australian multigenerational Labradoodle with green eyes and silky blond fur is still in the puppy stages, learning commands and chewing on things she shouldn’t be. But she’s destined for important work.
Aloha is one of the newest members of the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office, where she’s in training to become a “comfort dog” — offering a gentle, reassuring presence for crime victims at the office and, eventually, inside the courtroom.
She’s expanding on a program started about four years ago when Daisy, a border collie/Lab mix owned by a Davis resident, began accompanying child-molest victims undergoing interviews and counseling at the county’s Multidisciplinary Interview Center.
“In reality, she has already been on the job,” said Laura Valdes, program manager for the DA’s victim services unit and Aloha’s official owner. She started bringing the puppy to the office when Aloha was eight weeks old to socialize her.
To date, Aloha has sat in on more than a dozen interviews with crime victims, both children and adults, Valdes said. One of them was with a man whose house had been burglarized while his wife and son were at home.
While neither one was hurt in the crime, “he got very sentimental about what could have happened,” Valdes said. “Just to be petting Aloha during that interview, that helped him a lot. I can’t wait to see what she does as a fully trained service dog.”
Aloha is part of a growing trend in the United States in which dogs are brought in to provide affection and companionship to people in hospitals, nursing homes, disaster areas and other stressful atmospheres.
Earlier this month, comfort dogs came to the aid of Sandy Hook Elementary School students as they returned to their classes following the horrific Dec. 14 shootings that took their classmates’ lives.
Crime victim advocates say the dogs not only provide a gentle presence for their clients, but also can give them the courage to face their accusers in court.
Valdes researched numerous breeds before deciding on a Labradoodle and its non-shedding fur, a plus for an animal that is expected to get close to numerous victims, attorneys and other advocates who need to stay presentable for court.
She also wanted a dog that would grow large and playful enough to handle a rambunctious child, if necessary.
“She was the right fit we needed for the program,” Valdes said.
Daisy came first
District Attorney Jeff Reisig said the idea of starting a comfort dog program in his office came to him a few years back while reading a prosecutors’ trade journal.
“I stumbled across this article about how some DAs were using dogs in the office and the courtroom to provide comfort to victims,” Reisig said. The article touted the psychological benefits of dogs providing unconditional love “as they told these gut-wrenching stories about their victimization.”
“I thought, this is awesome. Plus, I love dogs,” said Reisig, a dog owner himself. “I appreciate having an animal in my life. It definitely brings me comfort in times of great stress.”
At about the same time, Davis resident Lori Raineri, whose dog Daisy had visited patients at area hospitals, offered her services as a therapy dog for crime victims. For the past four years, she’s provided a comforting presence for children, from preschoolers to teenagers, obtaining services from the Multidisciplinary Interview Center in Woodland.
“It helps distract people from what’s going on,” said Cameron Handley, program director at the MDIC, which seeks to reduce an abuse victim’s trauma by streamlining the interview process. Daisy is in the office two to three days a week, serving an estimated 160 children a year.
“Once she makes that connection with a child, we have her here whenever they come in,” Handley said. “She really just has that calming effect, and that tactile stimulation.”
Her presence has been such a success that the DA’s office wanted to expand the program to include victims of other crimes, but “Daisy’s got her paws full here,” Handley said. So Reisig gave the green light to bring a second dog on board.
Aloha was donated to the DA’s office by Gabby Jack Ranch, a nonprofit service-dog breeder out of Penn Valley that also has provided companions to disabled children and war veterans. If purchased, the dogs can cost upwards of $3,000.
Valdes said she initially wanted Aloha to belong to the office, but “we couldn’t justify it when we’re struggling to keep even staff on board.” She agreed to raise Aloha as a personal pet, covering her food and veterinary expenses.
Aloha’s weekly training is provided free of charge by Terry Sandhoff, a Sacramento trainer who also prepared Reggie, Sacramento County’s popular standard poodle comfort dog, for his courthouse rounds. Aloha is learning hand signals, and eventually will rely on them as she accompanies victims to the witness stand.
Her name means both “hello” and “goodbye” in the Hawaiian language, but it also can mean affection, peace, compassion and mercy. The moniker came to Valdes with the help of Corinna Ng, the owner of Dixie’s Paws and Claws pet store on Woodland’s Main Street. Valdes, who had yet to adopt the puppy, asked for suggestions of names that would be warm, welcoming and multicultural.
After a period of brainstorming, “she suggested the name Aloha, and I liked it immediately,” said Valdes, who also noted that the name is simple to pronounce in both English and Spanish.
It’s not just crime victims who benefit from the comfort dogs.
“You think of the obvious, the kids, but there’s also the effect on the staff and the detectives that we work with,” said Handley, who’s had Daisy rest her head in her lap during stressful phone calls. “She’s really tuned in to people and anxiety.”
At the DA’s office, Valdes said more and more prosecutors are stopping by her office, not just to provide updates on cases, but to get their puppy fix as well.
“What’s not to love about that?” asked Deputy District Attorney Sara Abrate, who sat on the floor one recent afternoon as Valdes brought Aloha by her office. Aloha promptly climbed in Abrate’s lap and curled into a ball.
“When you deal with a lot of cases that involve violence, it’s nice to have Aloha around,” added prosecutor Sulaiman Tokhi. “We can take a mental break away from the police reports and the evidence and the pictures.”
Not everyone appreciates the idea of having the dogs in the courtroom, however. Defense attorneys in Sacramento County have been known to object to Reggie’s court appearances for fear he could create juror sympathy for victims and give prosecutors an unfair advantage.
Tracie Olson, Yolo County public defender, said while comfort dogs should indeed play a role in what can be a stressful criminal justice system, the courtroom may not be the best place for them “because the interaction of that dog and the witness should not be open to evaluation by the jury.”
“Defense attorneys always fear that juries will let emotion rather than fact and reason enter into their decision-making process. A cute dog interacting with a witness on the stand threatens to encourage that very thing,” Olson said. “Let’s face it, doesn’t everyone seem more appealing — more likeable, credible and trustworthy — in the company of a sweet, well-behaved dog?”
Reisig said he fully expects defense attorneys to raise such issues down the road, but he noted that local judges have appeared open to the comfort-dog concept during informal discussions.
“So that is a good sign,” Reisig said. Ultimately, though, “the judges are going to have to make a balancing decision as to whether Aloha should be allowed in the courtroom.”
— Reach Lauren Keene at [email protected] or 530-747-8048. Follow her on Twitter at @laurenkeene