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Therapy dogs help keep abused children ‘standing strong’ in court

As an 11-year-old, Devin Connors’ victim felt all alone. She was so scared of him – of how he would come into her room and touch her in the dark – that she didn’t tell her mother or anyone else in her family. She was afraid he would hurt them, too.

She isn’t alone anymore. With a big, strong friend providing 88 pounds of furry canine comfort sitting beside her, she stood in court late last month to deliver her victim’s statement to the judge who was about to sentence her abuser.

“When he was in our house I was afraid to fall asleep at night,” the girl said.

The abuse by her mother’s boyfriend left her scared, withdrawn and afraid of letting people close. Eventually, Connors was arrested. He pleaded guilty to child sexual abuse.

The plea made a trial unnecessary, but the girl decided she still wanted to be heard at the sentencing. She got the strength from supportive family, caring counselors and Argos, a square-headed, warm-hearted, unflappable therapy dog.

Argos, or “Argie” to his friends, was a source of quiet confidence as the girl spoke. Tightly clutching the dog’s leash, her voice became firmer and then louder as she told Connors, “I am here to show I am still standing strong. I hope you know you did not ruin my life. You ruined a life though – your own! Your family, your children all know what you did to an innocent little girl.”

Connors was labeled a Level 1 sex offender and left Justice Penny M. Wolfgang’s court knowing he would spend the next 10 years on closely supervised probation.

His victim left the court with her head high, and with Argos and her family by her side.

It was just another day for the 11-year-old English Labrador retriever.

Argos isn’t just a pet, he is certified as a therapy dog. He also has at least two dozen other honors and certifications for canine skills such as hunting, retrieving, agility and obedience, but it is in comfort that he has gained his fame.

Still, he wears his crowns lightly on his large golden head, according to his handler and best friend, Andrew Skolnick.

“He’s the calmest, mellowest dog I know,” Skolnick said.

Skolnick made that assessment while testifying in court recently. State Supreme Court Justice Russell P. Buscaglia was holding a hearing on whether another girl, only 10 years old, could have Argos with her when she took the stand in the trial of Michael P. Milton, 41, of Buffalo, the man accused of raping her when she was 8.

Milton’s attorney, Robert Goldstein, filed an objection to the presence of the therapy dog on the grounds it could be prejudicial to a jury.

Buscaglia didn’t make a ruling after the hearing. He’s keeping an open mind. He noted the law allows courts to make special accommodations for young witnesses, and that Argos – if he’s not disruptive – might fall into that category.

Skolnick finds it almost funny to imagine Argos being disruptive.

“His impression of a rug is remarkable,” he said, describing his dog’s favorite position. “You can literally knock a bookshelf over, and he’ll lay there with books on his head.”

Being unflappable is a signature characteristic of successful therapy dogs.

“They walk quietly on a leash, no pulling. They interact well with strangers. And they are calm in unpredictable situations, a wheelchair rolling by for instance,” Skolnick testified.

Throughout the hearing Argos was quietly lying in the courtroom.

“It’s really more difficult to get him to stand up and walk,” Skolnick said.

Assistant District Attorney Rosanne Johnson, who is prosecuting the Milton case, asked about the service the dog would provide for the young witness, who has been seeing Argos since April.

“She will have a friend that she has had so much comfort from by her side during this trying time,” Skolnick testified. “She could reach down and comfort him – and that would comfort her.”

The child first met Argos at the Lee Gross Anthone Child Advocacy Center, where she receives counseling to help her cope with her trauma. The dog comes along to her sessions as a nonjudgmental, huggable ally.

Dechantal Cummings, a certified social worker, said the center has used therapy dogs for about four years. Argos was the first. They have six dogs now: four more labs and a Japanese Chin for kids who like a little dog they can hold. She said children ages 4 to 18 have been helped by the dogs.

“They’ll get right on the floor when they’re talking. Sometimes they lay on the dog like he’s a pillow,” Cummings said. “Children who have been abused are able to settle down and talk about things touching their hearts. Even when I’m in the room, they might talk to the dog instead. They’ll tell the dog what happened.”

Skolnick also might be in the room, but he wears headphones to keep from overhearing the discussion.

“I don’t have to see the terrible things or the effects of the terrible things,” he said. “I see happy kids – no different from when I take him to an elementary school.”

Skolnick described how the 10-year-old girl in the Milton case interacts with the therapy dog.

“She’s always so excited to see Argie. She asks for treats (to give him). She often brings him apples. He loves apples,” Skolnick said.

Cummings said several dozen children have been paired with therapy dogs. To be paired with one, they have to like dogs. They can’t be allergic. And, they need their guardian’s permission. Also, the dogs are assigned to children whose cases are most likely to go to court.

According to Johnson, the prosecutor, the Appellate Division in Poughkeepsie has upheld a witness’ right to have a therapy dog in court. Johnson recalls only one case of hers that involved a dog. The witness held a small dog through the proceedings.

Goldstein, the defense lawyer, recalled during the hearing the reaction of residents when he would take his dog to his mother’s nursing home. The people would just light up upon seeing the dog, he said.

After the hearing in Milton’s case, Buscaglia stepped down from the bench so he could pet Argos.

email: mmiller@buffnews.com

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