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It was all sunshine and puppy dog kisses at the Food Bank of North Central Arkansas yesterday afternoon.
Mountain Home dog lovers Matt and Michelle Paden’s beloved Roxy Rocks made her appearance alongside her fellow “PAWS for Justice” courtroom dog, Barb, during a three-hour meet and greet to raise funds for the service dog training organization.
Roxy and Barb were joined by their fellow Canine Companion graduate, Pizzaz, who is now serving as the newest member of 14th Judicial Prosecuting Attorney David Ethredge’s Office.
During the meet and greet, Baxter County Judge Kevin Litty read a proclamation to announce the celebration of National Service Dog Month in Baxter County.
“The state of Arkansas continues to work towards building a strong, hard-working, family-focused community, in which all citizens, including those with service dogs, are respected,” said Judge Litty. “Therefore, be it resolved, that I, Kevin Litty, judge of Baxter County Arkansas, by virtue of the authority invested in me, do hereby proclaim National Service Dog Month in Baxter County Arkansas.”
While Roxy Rocks is no stranger to Mountain Home, yesterday marked her first public appearance at a Baxter County event after becoming an Arkansas courtroom facility dog with the state’s “PAWS for Justice Program,” which was founded in 2019 by the Arkansas Prosecutor Coordinator’s Office to provide relief, security and calmness for victims and witnesses when confronting individuals accused of crimes in court.
Roxy graduated from Canine Companions’ training program in February of this year.
The “Paws for Justice” program was established by Fawn Borden and Susan Bradshaw, both victim advocate/witness coordinators for Faulkner County’s Prosecutor’s Office, who received their first courtroom facility dog, Barb, in 2016.
Paws for Justice currently employs four dogs across the entirety of the state, including Barb, Ari, Roxy Rocks and Reinholdt. Barb, who is the eldest dog in the program, is set to retire in the near future. She is being replaced by Reinholdt, who is in the process of taking over her position.
All of the dogs, including Pizzaz, are graduates of the Canine Companions program.
“Originally, Susan and I were victim advocates for the Faulkner County Prosecutor’s Office,” said Fawn Borden. “In 2016, we got Barb to kind of start using in our office and our area. So, in 2019, we had gone to a courthouse dog conference and Alabama presented that they had started a statewide program. Susan and I were like, I wonder if we could do that, and we thought, well, if Alabama can do it, we can too.”
The Arkansas Legislature first passed a law in 2015 to allow for the use of courthouse dogs with victims 18 and younger. The law was expanded in 2021 to allow the dogs to be used in cases involving developmentally disabled witnesses. Paws for Justice and its staff, both human and canine alike, are fully funded by the State Legislature.
All dogs used in the program are from Canine Companions, who legally own the dogs up until their retirement. As graduates from the Canine Companion program, each dog is a certified service animal. Many of the organization’s dogs go on to work in rehabilitation, education and the criminal justice system.
Underneath Paws for Justice, Barb, Roxy, and Ari are responsible for a variety of tasks including playing games with young children, providing comfort to victims of felony crimes, and emotional support to victims and witnesses sitting on the stand in a courtroom.
“We teach the dogs to play games,” Borden said. “So, they play bowling, tic-tac-toe. There’s one called the bee game to build interaction. One of the favorite ones was where both dogs wrap up like burritos. We play for a little while and then the prosecutors come in and they’re like, oh, did she do the burrito trick? Did she play tic-tac-toe with you? And they’re sitting on the floor, and the kids are on the ottoman hugging the dog and they can kind of talk about the dog, and then they can start talking about why they’re there. It makes a huge difference.”
Borden said Roxy had recently concluded her first full trial in Texarkana three weeks ago. In her first year, Barb oversaw 66 meetings, 32 trials and 32 motion hearings across the state.
While in the courtroom, the dogs are not allowed to be seen by the jury and are hidden behind a screen when sitting with witnesses and victims.
“I asked the young lady, she was a minor, how did Roxy do,” said Borden when speaking about Roxy’s first case. “And she goes, ‘Well, when I started crying, she kind of wrapped around my feet and then she didn’t move after that.’ She had two days of testifying that Roxy sat with her through.”
Each dog, and their handlers, are required to maintain their qualifications with Canine Companions each year. Borden said she and Roxy will continue to train together year-round until her retirement in 10-12 years. The training organization checks the dogs for weight, their ability to follow commands, and the health of their nails every three years.
While working, Roxy and her fellow Canine Companions are not allowed to be separated from their handlers for more than four hours, including during non-working hours. As working dogs, Roxy and others do not receive the full rights that service dogs do under the law and are not able to stay with their handlers full-time when traveling to various locations.
“We really have to change the way that we’re living,” Borden said.
Borden said she was working with State Legislators to implement a carve-out in the law for dogs that work for the state.
“Even though they have the same training, the same breeding, all of those same things, we don’t have a disability, so we don’t have public access. We can only go where we’re invited to,” Borden said.
While dogs through PAWS for Justice serve statewide, Prosecutor David Ethredge has decided to go the full-time route with his office’s newest dog, Pizzaz. Like Roxy, Ari and Barb, Pizzaz is a graduate of Canine Companions and will serve as Ethredge’s full-time courtroom facility dog.
Pizzaz will be replacing August, Ethredge’s retiring facility dog. Pizazz will be working and living with Nikki Keys, who serves as a witness/victim advocate for Ethredge’s office.
Ethredge has been an outspoken champion for the use of facility dogs in courtrooms across Arkansas, giving statements in various newspapers around the state when facility dogs are used during a trial.
The Baxter County prosecutor most recently donated August to Benton County Circuit Judge Bran Karren’s courtroom during a case in which an 8-year-old girl testified against her rapist in February of this year.
“It gives us an additional way to help victims that we couldn’t do as well in the past,” Ethredge said. “A dog, in a child, changes the world for them. Because people who come in, especially young victims, have been violated in the worst way you can imagine, and they don’t want to talk to us. They may not want to talk to Nikki, who’s a victim witness. But you bring a dog into the equation, and all of a sudden, they feel safe when that dog crawls up in their laps. It changes everything. It gives them an advocate.”
While Ethredge and other prosecutors have been championing the use of facility dogs in court, defense attorneys have pushed back, stating that the use of dogs in the courtroom could provide sympathy to a witness, which in turn could impact the innocence or guilt phase of a trial.
In August’s last case in Benton, Jay Saxton, Benton County’s chief public defender said, “It’s not that I don’t have sympathy for a victim or witness in a case, but I also have to look out for my client.”
Ethredge said the complaints from public defenders do not hold merit since the jury is not informed that the dog is in the room when a victim or witness is testifying.
“The jury does not know they’re there,” Ethredge said. “We have a cloth that covers around the whole area to where the jury cannot see the dog. They don’t know they’re there. Is there some sympathy? Maybe. But that child deserves some sympathy because they’ve been victimized.”