A Texas paw-secutor

Katherine Nolden

Assistant Criminal District Attorney in Collin County

Collin County recently “hired” a new staffer—Winston the English bulldog—as a therapy dog. His path to the DA’s office is a little different from how most prosecutor’s offices get therapy dogs, and his story just might be a help for smaller offices with limited funds or personnel.

In May 2016, Collin County Criminal District Attorney Greg Willis began ruminating on the idea of getting a therapy dog for our office. A therapy dog is different from service dogs in many ways, but they boil down to one rule: A service dog is not a pet, while a therapy dog is. While both are trained animals, a service dog is specifically trained, according to requirements in the Americans with Disabilities Act, to provide assistance to one individual with a disability—think veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or vision-impaired people.
    A prosecutor’s office typically wouldn’t need a service dog—a therapy dog is much more suited to the needs of, say, crime victims who come in for interviews or who are preparing to testify against an assailant. Mr. Willis knew that if his office was going to bring on a therapy dog, he wanted to do it right. He wanted a certified, trained, even-tempered dog that would help the victims in his county find peace during a scary time.
    Completely separately from the therapy-dog discussions between our elected CDA and his first and second assistants, I had learned from a family member about a therapy dog working in Orange County, Florida. I did some late-night Googling and research on the subject, turned to look at the 50-pound, wrinkled pup next to me, and thought, “Winston could do that!”
     Winston is my English bulldog. He met me, his human, at eight weeks old, during the end of my 1L year at Southern Methodist Law School. Throughout law school, he stayed by my side, usually snoring, for those long study sessions, brief-writing conferences, and all-nighters most of us have gladly blocked from our memories. He is also a proud graduate of the American Kennel Club’s S.T.A.R. Puppy Program, AKC’s Canine Good Citizen course, and Therapy Dogs International’s therapy dog certification. (He is currently under consideration as an AKC Therapy Dog, but he is still waiting on those results—it’s much like waiting to hear about passing the bar.)
    After my night of Internet searching, the next day I enrolled Winston in a refresher obedience course because, let’s be honest, his “sit” and “stay” had turned into “slouch” and “roll to the ground.” We completed that refresher in October, and I then decided to test the waters at our office with the idea of a therapy dog. I made a comment to my Division Chief, Bill Wirskye, who told me to research using therapy dogs in the courthouse and what it would entail. As someone who likes specific, articulable directions, this broad request led me to accumulate a file full of information ranging from therapy-dog training to scientific research on “Therapeutic As-pects of the Human-Companion Animal Interaction” (written by one Sandra Barker—and yes, I smiled at her last name too).
    When our office returned from the holiday break and our court schedule was back in full force, I knew that the idea of a therapy dog to comfort crime victims would soon come up again. I decided unilaterally to take Winston to his therapy dog test. I looked up the first available test (because I had the confidence of a trial lawyer in Winston’s abilities), saw it was scheduled in four days on a Saturday, and promptly signed both of us up. I had only skimmed over the testing requirements, and when I looked at them again that night, I groaned. Winston, an English bulldog, is 80 percent motivated by food and 20 percent motivated by back scratches, and two of the tests involve tempting the dog with a treat while commanding him to “leave it.” This was going to be interesting.

The day of testing
The day of the test we made the drive out to Trophy Club, Texas, to the Zoom Room; we were in the second round of testing but arrived 15 minutes early (as my old law school professor used to say, “if you’re on time, you’re late”) to check in, pay our $10 testing fee, and watch the first round of handlers and dogs go through the ringer. In each round, there were only five dogs with their respective handlers. As we watched pair after pair fail the two-phase, 12-part test, the pairs were released by the judge with a polite but firm, “You’re excused.”
    When it came time for us to start the test, I was nervous, but Winston was as happy as can be. He trotted on into the testing area and immediately introduced himself to the judge. (I have no idea where he learned to be friendly to judges.) We began Phase I with fairly simple tests: The judge first checked to see if Winston was kept properly groomed, and then I had to leave him with a volunteer and exit the room, being completely out of sight for two minutes, to see if he grew anxious or wouldn’t relax with people besides me. Winston had to keep his calm while being surrounded by people all wanting to pet him or talking loudly. I was starting to think this wasn’t a test but basically a vehicle to inflate Winston’s vanity—he sailed through with flying colors.
    The last tests in Phase I were more what you would think of: commands to sit and stay, then my repeating those commands from 6 feet away, and finally having him stay in a down position while I walked 20 feet away, and then calling him to me. While all of the dogs before us bounded up and ran to their handlers, Winston lazily got to his feet and plodded over to me. He also made sure to heave a large sigh in the middle of his walk, drawing laughs from the other handlers and the judge.
    Phase II was where I knew we could slip up. The easy tests in that phase included meeting another dog, being comfortable around loud noises (a volunteer threw a beam with hubcaps attached to it on the ground when the dogs were not looking to see how they’d react), and being comfortable around sights common in a hospital: people in wheelchairs, people walking with crutches, or people with rolling IV drip stands. Then came the dreaded hurdle: Winston was supposed to sit in front of the judge, who was holding a treat in front of him. I would command him to “leave it,” and he would have to do just that. The dog before us, in a compromise to his owner’s command to “leave it” and his own desire for that cheesy bacon treat, hadn’t eaten it but licked it—and the pair was excused.
    I thought we were in trouble when Winston’s eyes lasered in on the treat. He heard my “leave it” command—did I mention I was allowed to say the command only once and without pulling on his leash?—and he started to lean in. Not a Sheryl Sandberg kind of “lean in,” but an “Eve in the Garden of Eden gazing at the apple” type of “lean in.” He eyes darted from the treat to me (I had a stern look on my face), back to the treat, then back to me. He came thhiiiis close to the treat, took a big ol’ sniff, savored it, then sat back and looked up at me, clearly pleased with himself. I looked at the judge, expecting her to politely excuse us, but she just laughed and said, “He didn’t eat it, so you can go on.” I was ecstatic, especially because the next and last test involved simulated reading to children with Winston laying on the ground (his specialty). Three child volunteers came in, and we all sat in a group with Winston on the ground in front of me as I read two pages from Le Petit Prince. Winston passed his test, and we walked out as a newly minted handler with her just-certified therapy dog—a just-certified therapy dog with a huge bone in his mouth. It was an apology for the earlier treat he didn’t get to eat.

Taking Winston to work
The Monday after his test, I turned in the packet of therapy dog information with a sticky note on the front, proudly underlining the fact that the office had access to a ready and waiting therapy dog because Winston was certified. Mr. Willis reviewed the information I provided, along with the development of having a ready-to-go volunteer. Within two weeks I was called into his office, where Winston was officially offered the job. I promised Winston would wear his bowtie for his first day.
    Winston’s first Monday on the job was in March of this year, and we haven’t looked back. His first trial was an aggravated sexual assault where the victim had to watch a video of the assault made by her rapist. Prosecutors had made the tough decision that the victim should watch the video before testifying, so while she worked up the courage to press “play” on the laptop, Winston sat next to her for hours. She watched the video with headphones and ended up moving from her seat (next to Winston on the couch) to the floor with the computer on the coffee table before her. Winston, still prone on the couch, had his head on her shoulder for part of the video and then moved to the floor to put his head in her lap for the rest. She asked for Winston to return every single day of her week-long trial. A smile crossed her face when she greeted him every morning and when she played with him while waiting for the trial to end. The only other time she smiled that week (in addition to when she was with Winston) was when the jury returned a guilty verdict and her rapist was sentenced to 40 years.
    A normal day for Winston depends on the number of victims we have in the office. He once met four different victims all on one day; he needed a break in my quiet office at lunch because most of those victims were under 16 and very lively. He has a bed and toys in both my office and the Victim Assistance suite. One day he spent five solid hours sitting next to a victim who had to wait to testify and was in bad shape emotionally. He’ll even work weekends if I need to too: I will take paperwork into an empty courtroom and sit on the witness stand going through case files. I’ll have him stay by me the whole time so that he can practice sitting by a testifying victim. Each day Winston leaves the office exhausted; we don’t make it out of the parking lot before the dulcet sounds of snoring emanate from the back seat. Winston loves working for the citizens of Collin County, but even a half day of work can leave him spent.
    On those days when Winston has no victims to meet, he turns his attention to the employees in the office. He’ll check in with his boss, Greg Willis, for a tummy rub, snooze on the floor of an investigator’s office, or try and raid the fridge in the break room. He has played fetch in the hallways and tried his short legs at foot races. Everyone he passes comments on how their spirits have been lifted just by seeing his squished face peek in their doorway. Many days he lumbers from office to office or visits his friends in the cafeteria who always seem to have an “extra” hamburger for him. He has met the deputies, most of the judges, and court staff in the courthouse; he was even invited to sit in a judge’s chair. (Unlike the rest of us, he did not appreciate the chair’s swivel quality.)

An unconventional path
Winston’s path to becoming the office’s therapy dog was not standard. From all of my research, the “norm” is for an office to adopt a puppy from a shelter and train the puppy to be a therapy dog, or an office purchases an already-trained dog. Winston offered us a third way to get a therapy dog. Personally, I think Winston’s way is the best (perhaps I’m biased): It means that an office doesn’t need extra personnel to take care of a newly adopted or purchased pup, and it’s cost-effective too. His refresher obedience course cost about $50, and the therapy-dog certification test was $10. Winston is also an unpaid volunteer, and I save money on doggie daycare. In terms of time, the refresher course and certification took about 15 hours (an eight-week obedience course at one hour a week, practicing commands in the intervening days, plus a two-hour certification test).
    This time and money were well spent: Not only is Winston a certified therapy dog, but he is also a very well-behaved dog outside the office. I imagine there are many ADAs, investigators, and staff in offices around Texas who own and love dogs that might make be able to make a difference in a prosecutor’s office. It’s certainly an option I would encourage offices to consider because the benefits of an on-staff therapy dog far outweigh the costs.
    Winston—and his happy-go-lucky demeanor and penchant for cuddling—has meant that traumatized victims, both child and adult, have walked into a courtroom calmer and more confident than they thought they would be. His presence lightens the atmosphere of the office so that the staff can better handle the burdens of our careers. He means the citizens of Collin County have another set of shoulders, those of a paw-secutor, that they can rely on.