A stern voice commands “All rise!” The Krugersdorp Magistrate’s court goes quiet as the magistrate makes an entrance. The black and red robe makes her stand out from the pack. As she gracefully walks to her stand, she sniffs around and gets distracted.
Suddenly, she spins around, gobbling up a treat from an outstretched hand behind her. Right after indulging, she shifts her attention back to the matter she’s presiding over. She’s no ordinary magistrate, she is one of 15 specially-trained therapy hounds that descend upon the Krugersdorp Magistrate’s Court west of Johannesburg every second Saturday.
Her name is Kleio, and she shares the courtroom with legal ‘pawtners’ like Flake – the prosecutor – and Betty – the stenographer; each dog dressed in a uniform tailored for their role. Aww-dorable!
According to Corrie Niemann, Vice President of Top Dogs, an animal therapy training organisation, these therapy dogs are trained to help people recover from psychological trauma and even heart disease. Top Dogs in ‘pawtnership’ with Johannesburg’s Teddy Bear Foundation, a foundation which supports children who have been sexually abused or neglected, work together to assist the over 24,000 child sexual abuse victims reported to The South African Police Service in the timeframe of one year. Shocking!
Kleio and her team of legal eagles (or in this case, dogs) offer a helping paw to sexually abused children during court cases. They make the young ones feel safe and more comfortable when they become overwhelmed and scared of the courtroom’s cold, wooden benches. “Courtrooms are not built for children”, says Shadeka Omar, Clinical Director of the Teddy Bear Foundation.
She explains: “Children who have experienced trauma often generalise their experience onto everything. They’ll be afraid of everything and everyone.” According to Omar, a fascinating phenomenon begins to take shape when the kids start to trust the dogs. They become less fearful. And, the little ones gradually begin to trust their court preparation counsellors and social workers. The dogs help them heal.
In 2017, researchers assigned children between the ages of 7 and 12 to rooms where they were asked to do speeches and solve math problems in front of an unknown audience. The youngsters were anxious and did not perform as well as expected.
When animal companions joined in the activities, the children who petted their furry friends for comfort had lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. The study, published in the journal, Social Development, in 2017, concluded that pet dogs could act as a form of a stress buffer for children.
Locally, research published in the South African Journal of Psychology in 2013, found therapy dogs even helped to improve traumatised children’s self-esteem and social skills.
The Teddy Bear Foundation hopes to expand the court preparation programme, which currently only runs in two centres – Johannesburg and Krugersdorp. If everything goes according to plan, the first new satellite clinic will be in Soweto. As for the dogs, they’ll work for the odd tummy rub. The trouble is finding enough pet owners willing to offer their pets to be trained for the job. “We’ll need 15 more volunteer handlers and dogs for each new site,” Top Dogs’ Corrie Niemann explains.
Let’s hope that soon therapy dogs will take the stand in every courtroom in South Africa. Let justice be served with the ‘suppawt’ of man’s best friend.