There are moments in life when we have to face our fears, speak up, and be brave. Those moments can be difficult, especially when we feel like we’re all alone. Then, it always helps to feel someone next to us who we know will have our back the whole way.
In a courtroom on the stand, we are not allowed to have our friends and family by our side to hold our hand or whisper encouragement. But people are allowed to seek support in an animal who can provide comfort and strength. In some cases, this helping paw can be key to both the witness — and the case.
It all started when a white boxer was born. He was named Karl, and he was instantly loved. However, finding a home for him would be difficult because he was completely deaf in both ears. Luckily, one woman didn’t seem to mind.
Joanne Hart-Rittenhouse was a dog lover who was happy to adopt Karl, even if it meant facing a more difficult training process. It’s easy to teach a dog tricks with verbal commands, but getting a pup’s attention with eye contact alone isn’t.
Before adopting Karl, Joanne already had 3 boxers, all of which became therapy dogs. Once Joanne and Karl had established some sign language commands, the pooch proved to be incredibly sympathetic and well-behaved.
Impressively, clever Karl learned over 100 signs. The only problem was that while Joanna knew exactly how to communicate with him in detail, most people couldn’t. If Karl was going to work with people who needed him, they would need to learn some signs.
Except, Karl would not grow up to be a regular support dog; he would become a therapy dog who calmed and encouraged children who had to testify in court. His disability would actually play to his advantage.
While most dogs are easily distracted by sounds (the bang of the gavel, the whispers among the crowd, the outrage of the lawyers), Karl didn’t have this problem at all. Instead, he could stay focused on the child on the stand.
Through a program called Companions for Courage, Karl was assigned one case after another. Laura Brimmer, a K9th-Circuit program manager, compared him to bikers. “As soon as the kids realize the biker is there for them, they want the biggest one they can find,” she said. “And I think it’s the same with the dog.”
Even though Karl’s size could be comforting to some, a big dog could still seem intimidating to kids, which was why he was usually seen donning a blue cap!
Before any actual hearing, children are always prepped in addition to taking part in several depositions, and Karl was there for them through it all. According to Susan Beth Crumpler, Assistant State Attorney, therapy animals can be enormously helpful during these sessions.
The trick to ease the communication between Karl and his pupils was to simplify certain gestures and teach them to the children several times before trial.
This way, they could ask him to come closer, put his head on their laps, lie down next to them, and do anything else they needed for comfort.
One specific case in 2016 proved that animals like Karl can be crucial to the child’s testimony. A young girl was brought into the courtroom and asked to testify about a man who had sexually assaulted her. Naturally, she was absolutely terrified.
“She knew the gentleman who had wronged her was going to be in that courtroom, and she really had a fear to go in front of him and tell him what he did to her” Joanne Hart-Rittenhouse explained.
When the young girl first met Karl, she took to him right away. “Is he going to protect me?” she asked Joanne. Once she was convinced that Karl would be at her side no matter what, both literally and figuratively, she felt brave enough to head into the courtroom.
One can only imagine what it is like for a child to have to recall and describe the horrors that have been inflicted upon them — especially in front of a crowd of strangers, and even more so if the accused party is present. Who wouldn’t be terrified in a situation like that?
It was no surprise then to the courtroom when the young girl froze up in the middle of the hearing. She didn’t utter a word; she was overcome by fear. Unfortunately, without her testimony, the case would not be easily won, and her attacker could go free…
But then, she looked down. Karl’s friendly face looked up at her, and she remembered that, with him by her side, she could be brave. She signed him to come closer, and he laid underneath her seat.
Although she couldn’t reach all the way down to pet him, she still needed to feel him there, so she did something surprising: she kicked off her shoes, and gently ran her feet through his fur, petting him and assuring herself of his comforting presence.
At last, she could answer all the questions and describe the events that had led to them being in that courtroom. With Karl’s help, this little girl bravely got a sick man off the streets.
Aside from court cases, Karl also made appearances in libraries and hospitals. “We’ll be there as long as the child wants Karl to stay in their life. He’s helped a lot of children,” said Joanne, who couldn’t be prouder. He has become so popular that he’s got his own coloring book!
Unfortunately, not every dog born like Karl gets the life they deserve. At least not at first. Meet Echo. A breeder gave her to a family that did not know she was deaf – and they responded with further mistreatment. The new owners stopped feeding her and contemplated putting her down.
By the time Marion Dwyer saw the above image of Echo, the poor animal had resorted to eating rocks. An animal lover, Dwyer and a local rescue group moved quickly to rescue Echo.
Echo immediately improved in Dwyer’s care. The resilient pup began to show what a happy dog she truly was.
Although deaf, Echo exhibited all the energy and love one would expect. All she needed was a little in return.
Because of her disability, it was difficult to train Echo at first.
But she picked up on things quickly.
Echo’s incredible recovery prompted Dwyer to pen an open letter to the original owner.
“She is only alive because of the Louisiana Great Dane Rescue that always keeps an eye out for dogs that are discarded like her. And we are happy that they chose us to adopt Echo.”
“[It took a while to get her to trust] that there will ALWAYS be another meal and that she doesn’t have to eat rocks and other things she found outside…”
“She is my heart dog and every person and dog that meets her loves her immediately.”
Dwyer is training Echo in American Sign Language so that they can communicate.
She is also being trained as a therapy dog so that she can bring joy and comfort to others who may need some love, just as she once did.