Ozzie, the two and a half year old Corgi/Labrador-cross featured in an article in the Northern Sentinel last year, has graduated with flying colours and is ready to help young witnesses to make it through the trauma of testifying in court.
When he and his owner Kitimat Victim Services Unit’s Leisl Kaberry were featured in December last year, Ozzie had begun his training to become a fully-fledged therapy dog with the Kitimat RCMP Victim Services Unit.
Ozzie has now completed all four levels of training through the Caring K9 Institute in Prince George under the watchful eye of trainer Krista Levar, who runs the program and who also started the Victim Services Therapy Dog Program at the Prince George RCMP.
The first two levels involved Kaberry training Ozzie to be obedient and to work well with people, to be a “good canine neighbour”, while the third level focussed on Kaberry developing an understanding of her and Ozzie’s working relationship.
“The third level of training was about me and developing an understanding of the work we would be doing together,” said Kaberry.
The third level also involved training Ozzie to be able to sit in isolation without moving for 10 minutes, important for therapy dogs who will sit next to victims in court while they’re testifying, without moving and disrupting proceedings.
The fourth level involved more training and the final exam, which Kaberry and Ozzie travelled to Prince George for on July 12.
There Ozzie and Kaberry got to sit in an empty Supreme Court, on the stand, this time for a lengthy 20 minutes by himself, without moving, supervised by Levar, who ultimately decides whether Ozzie would be suitable to become a therapy dog.
He had plenty of distractions, Kaberry’s daughters role playing as witness and prosecutor, as well as Levar’s dog Max.
“If he was to have stood up during the exam, he would have failed the training,” said Kaberry.
Throughout the training, Kaberry also had to sit for exams with Levar via Skype, and complete tests at the detachment in Kitimat, with officers “fluffing him up and playing with his ears” to see how he coped with contact.
“Ultimately bringing him with me to the detachment every day has been the best training. This is where most of his work will be done,” said Kaberry.
She added, however, that the Ozzie’s actual work is “just being a dog” – she was concerned that the training and the work might alter her and her family’s relationship with Ozzie at home.
However, she needn’t have been concerned – while Ozzie loves having his uniform put on, and he becomes a different dog, as soon as the jacket comes off at home, he stops working and reverts back to Ozzie the family dog.
Kaberry and her family adopted Ozzie from the Kitimat Humane Society when he was just four months old, and it wasn’t until she attended a Victim Services conference in April 2016 that Kaberry considered signing him up to become a therapy dog.
At the conference she met representatives from the Pacific Assistance Dogs Society, an organization that trains puppies into service dogs. She was immediately struck by the possibility of using Ozzie as a therapy dog, considering he has a naturally calm demeanour, which made him a great candidate for training.
With the support of the Kitimat detachment she approached Levar, whose dog Max was the first dog to be used in court in B.C. as a testimonial aid, to sit with a victim who was testifying, five years ago. A testimonial aid is any method used to assist young victims or witnesses to testify in court, including remote testifying via camera and screens, to prevent any additional trauma.
“The dogs put victims and witnesses at ease, reducing the anxiety that comes with having to testify,” said Kaberry. “Levar teaches people how to train their dogs – she instinctively knows what dogs need.”
Ozzie’s training was funded by Kitimat Community Services, as well as his uniform, which was specially embroidered with his badge, which now no longer says “In Training” anymore.
“It’s not a huge cost – he’s my dog and I’m already financially responsible for him,” said Kaberry.
She added that the benefits of having a therapy dog far outweigh any costs associated with the program – he has already helped comfort young victims who have come to the detachment to give statements.
“When they come in we make sure Ozzie is there. He even helps calm the mothers down who accompany their children,” said Kaberry.
While he has helped out at the detachment, the final hurdle for Ozzie is getting the nod from the judges, who ultimately decide whether testimonial aids will be allowed in court or not.
“The Crown has to apply to the court to allow for testimonial aids. I am really hoping the judges agree to try it out,” said Kaberry.
She said she and Ozzie are ready should the judges agree to allow Ozzie into court – he even has a special mat that he gets to sit on while he sits next to the person testifying.
“I feel really confident about him – his presence in a room is all that’s required. He’s like a big teddy bear,” said Kaberry.
She said testifying is a daunting process and that it’s important not to re-victimize young victims and witnesses when they recount the often awful testimony they have to give.
“There have been studies done on the relationship between dogs and children. The dogs have a calming effect, which allows the children to be more at ease and to give better testimony,” added Kaberry.
She said she encourages people to pet Ozzie, who actually benefits from the interaction with people.
“Yes, anyone can pet him and hug him. Even the officers at the detachment come in every now and then to pet him – it’s good for them too,” said Kaberry.
She estimates that there are at least 15 therapy dogs in service throughout the province, with three in Prince George alone.