Lydia Crochet Thursday, July 16, 2015 0

Local Children Find Comfort In Dogs

By Lydia Crochet

Clockwise from left: Millie, Maegan Wedlock, Erika Simon, Caitlin Delafield, Jeanie, Lakota, Gracie, resident gorilla and Rhyson.

Clockwise from left: Millie, Maegan Wedlock, Erika Simon, Caitlin Delafield, Jeanie, Lakota, Gracie, resident gorilla and Rhyson.

The Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC), a division of Family and Youth Counseling Agency in Lake Charles, is a program in which forensic interviews are held with children alleged to have been sexually or severely physically abused. The lobby of the CAC is cheerfully decorated to accommodate and entertain children. In the middle of the room, a small round table with built-in seats holds a large container of crayons and coloring books. A bookshelf in the corner is packed with all kinds of books and toys. Stuffed animals of every variety are placed throughout the room, including a large, dark brown gorilla that’s usually propped next to a leather chair. But one accessory in this lobby stands out above the rest and is a favorite to the children, parents and employees alike — a dog.

The CAC has partnered with a local group of certified therapy dogs called Dr. Dogs. The group is made up of volunteers and their own personal pets, who have been tested and are registered with a national therapy dog organization. Several times a week, a dog and its handler (one pair at a time) are scheduled to hang out in the lobby with the children and their parents or guardians.

T Dog 8But why? What role could a dog possibly play in forensic interviews? David Duplechain, vice president of Advocacy at Family and Youth, explains: “As you can imagine, it’s not easy for a child to talk about something like sexual or physical abuse. Everything we do is designed to help the child feel safe and to reduce anxiety and the trauma associated with telling their story of abuse. Having therapy dogs in the CAC to interact with the children and their families has really helped us with this. You can see the kids’ faces light up when they see the dog; and the dog’s ability to sense when the child is hurting and their reaction to that is just amazing.”

Some may wonder what Duplechain is referring to when he mentions the “dog’s ability to sense when a child is hurting.” Can dogs smell fear? Can they detect anxiety or apprehension? According to most animal experts, the answer is yes, yes and yes. It’s not the actual emotion of fear they smell, it’s the smell of stress related hormones released by the body during changes in emotion. These hormones are released into the bloodstream and other bodily fluids like tears, urine, and sweat. Fear or anxiety is often accompanied by increased heart rate and blood flow, which sends body chemicals more quickly to the skin’s surface. And since dogs are estimated to have scenting abilities hundreds, or even thousands, of times greater than humans, they can usually detect a tense situation — like that of a scared child trying to explain to strangers one of the scariest and most traumatizing moments of his or her life.

But these aren’t just any strangers. The CAC staff and partnering law enforcement officials are professionals who are trained specifically to handle these kinds of investigations. As emotional as the circumstances may be, they do their best to make sure the child is comfortable and the parents are informed.

T Dog 7The dogs are with the children before and after the interview. They play and cuddle in the lobby until the child is called to the interviewing room, and because the children cannot be accompanied during the interview, family members are comforted by the dogs while they wait. The children are of all ages and backgrounds, so anything can happen during the visits. Some days, the dogs spend the entire time being what God commissioned them to be — lap dogs, giving and receiving love and adoration. While on other days, they spend the time supervising a toy box being unloaded or listening intently as the child reads a book to them.

Detective Sarah Stubbs, with the Sex Crimes and Child Abuse Unit of the Calcasieu Parish Sheriff’s Department says, “I enjoy having the therapy dogs at the Children’s Advocacy Center because of the way the children respond. They are there to talk about either experiencing or witnessing physical or sexual violence and they’re usually a little apprehensive or quiet. When the therapy dogs are there, the children come out of their shells, have big smiles on their faces, and appear to be more comfortable. The dogs, law enforcement and the CAC work together to help these children through whatever has been done to them.”

Susan Stanford is Dr. Dog’s Therapy Dogs’ coordinator. She tells us that, currently, there are eight therapy dogs on active rotation at the Children’s Advocacy Center: Ramone, Sissy, Millie, Gracie, Lakota, Rhyson, Jeanie and Sprout. She says, “Our dogs serve as a bridge between the children and the authorities.” Other dogs in the group, along with the ones listed, regularly meet with children who attend the Good Mourning Gang, a program at Family and Youth for grieving children who have lost immediate family members.

T Dog 6I happen to own one of these special dogs. Jeanie, a 3-legged Pomeranian-Yorkie mix, is a rescue dog and a regular at the CAC. Like any seasoned professional, she has a routine she follows upon getting to work: She greets the employees, acknowledges the large stuffed gorilla and sniffs out the child she’s come to comfort. After the introductions, I sit back and watch the magic unfold. Most, or all, of the worry seems to fade from the child’s face while he or she interacts with Jeanie. When the child is called to the “talk room,” Jeanie waits patiently (with said gorilla) for the child to return. Her tail begins to wag the moment the door is opened and she’s up on her three feet when the child appears. It’s a joyous reunion that leads to a few more minutes of play time. When the child leaves, Jeanie has another job to do. This is the portion of our visit when both law enforcement and the CAC staff members take advantage of the free therapy. Some will even join Jeanie on the lobby’s rug to play.

The dogs have received a prestigious award for their good deeds. Dr. Dogs has been selected as the Volunteer/ Humanitarian of the Year by the Family Foundation of Family and Youth. They’re being recognized for both their dedicated service at the Children’s Advocacy Center and for their participation in the Good Mourning Gang. I’m both excited and proud to be a part of this program. I believe Duplechain said it best while summing up exactly who benefits the most from this program, “Our detectives have seen the benefits and have started requesting dogs on specific cases when they think the kids really need it. The dogs have also been a comfort to our parents. The use of therapy dogs in our CAC has been a win-win for everyone.”