When Crown Counsel asked Penny Stavast if she knew of a court therapy dog in the Williams Lake area she knew her dog Charlie could do the job.
Stavast works with Community-Based Victim Services at Canadian Mental Health Association Cariboo-Chilcotin and early on noticed her four-year-old chocolate lab retriever had an ability to comfort people.
“If I was stressed or under distress, she comforted me and she was my anchor and over the years I was hearing about dogs being used in court for therapy dogs,” Stavast told the Tribune, as Charlie wandered around her office, often coming over to sit close to this reporter.
A year ago, Stavast attended a training session in Prince George about using dogs in court and the role they can play.
“I went with the idea that I didn’t want to lose some of Charlie’s perks and personality in the process because my understanding of a service dog is that they are always working and have to act in a certain way,” she said. “By going there it reaffirmed that it’s not about changing your dog, it’s about enhancing the traits they have.”
Last February, Crown Counsel called Stavast and Charlie in to work with a young victim who was going to court for a sexual abuse case.
“When we met, she identified for herself that she had used one of her family’s animals but we couldn’t bring that animal into the courthouse,” she said.
Because Charlie is still in training, she cannot go into the courtroom, but she attended the victim’s trial and sat outside the door when she was giving evidence.
“When she had a break, she definitely used Charlie for support in the victim services waiting room. It was very emotionally distressing for her so when she came into the room she just held onto Charlie and cried and that was what she needed.”
The victim’s mother told Stavast having Charlie there helped her daughter to go through with giving her testimony.
“She said it was phenomenal to see the impact Charlie had on her daughter. Charlie knew when she needed her and just went to her.”
Court can be stressful on its own, but when victims have to testify it can re-traumatize them, she added.
”We often use breathing exercises or exercises to help them refocus to bring them into the here and now. I cannot touch my clients, but Charlie can. At this point she isn’t credited to be in the court room, but once she is certified then she can.”
With Community Victim Services, Stavast assists victims of power-based crimes, such as sexual assaults, family violence issues, physical and sexual abuse, child abuse as well as criminal harassment matters.
She provides services to all ages and has been stationed in Williams Lake just over 10 years.
Training for Charlie will take about a year to complete four levels of certification.
“There is a provincial system that’s been approved for court therapy dogs and I don’t want to try to take her in when she isn’t certified. The sheriffs were great and said if I wanted to bring Charlie in the courtroom to go ahead, but I didn’t. The defence lawyers that walked by were very impressed with Charlie and also said I needed to get Charlie in the room with the victim because she was emotionally stressed.”
Since that first case, Stavast has been bringing Charlie to work at CMHA to offer support to clients and coworkers.
“She’s attended meetings at the Ministry of Children and Family Development when I have had meetings with clients and social workers.”
During the wildfires, Charlie was a mainstay at the Emergency Services Centre in Prince George when Stavast evacuated.
Several clients connected with her in Prince George and many children visited with Charlie while their parents talked with Stavast.
“It was very chaotic for many people, but Charlie was calm. I’ve never socialized her with other dogs so she doesn’t have the typical canine social behaviours,” she said.
While Stavast was getting assistance at the ESS and Charlie was at her feet, there was a man nearby in obvious distress at the table beside them.
Charlie went to the man on her own, sat beside him and put her head on his knee.
Within about 30 seconds, the man realized the dog’s presence and began to pet her.
“He turned to the worker, calm as could be, and identified his needs. Prior to that, he was in a crisis mode.”
Stavast also brought Charlie to the resiliency centre in Williams Lake after the wildfire evacuation was lifted, where she interacted with people.
“Having Charlie there was really good and she went to the people that needed her. It proves there is a viable process and its instinct on Charlie’s behalf.”