For the first time in a Canadian courtroom, a dog was allowed on the witness stand Tuesday to comfort a young girl who was testifying against her own father in a sexual assault case.
The girl’s father is charged with sexual assault with a weapon and forcible confinement involving the child and his wife.
Crown prosecutor Rosalind Greenwood knew recounting the alleged incidents of rape would be traumatic for the girl so she requested that the judge allow the so-called trauma dog to sit by the girl’s side while she testified.
CBC News reports the Alberta judge agreed to allow 4-year-old Hawk to comfort the girl.
Sgt. Brent Hutt of the Calgary Police Service is Hawk’s handler. He said Hawk has provided comfort to numerous crime victims during the time the two have been together. He said that Hawk has a remarkable intuition when it comes to knowing who has been traumatized and is in need of comfort.
“I've seen him walk into a room, bypass people that he knows … and go to the victim and curl up with [them]. It blows people away,” he said.
Hawk will also accompany the girl’s young brother on the stand when he is asked to testify. The dog will be there to provide a comforting influence by doing little more than putting his head in the lap of the witness.
“So he’ll be there with the witness when they’re testifying, just to be there to offer that support,” Hutt said, according to Global News. “There’s no science to it. He comes and he’s well trained, he’s obedient, and he sits and people pet him. It’s really that easy.”
Hutt said he prepared Hawk for his new role in the courtroom by introducing him to the children a few times before the trial began. He said the 76-pound black Labrador retriever was a natural.
“Their reaction with him is typical of all the kids we interact with. It brings a smile to their face, helps us have a conversation. No bad can come of it,” he told CTV News.
Trauma dogs are widely used in U.S. courtrooms to support witnesses, but it is a new role for the animals in Canada.
Laura Watamanuk of the Pacific Assistance Dogs Society — the organization that trained Hawk for the Calgary Police Department — said she hopes the judge’s decision in Alberta will lead other Canadian courts to change their rules as well.
“For anybody that is coming up if they’re in that type of situation, be it a victim of crime or a vulnerable witness, to have that available if they really want it would be a great asset,” she said.