Trauma dog helps girl testify at sex assault trial against father

A trauma dog helped an alleged sexual assault victim as the young girl testified in a criminal trial — a Canadian first seen in a Calgary courtroom Tuesday.

Hawk, a specially trained Labrador retriever, sat with 7-year-old in separate witness room during testimony

Hawk was requested in the courtroom by the Crown prosecutor of a sexual assault trial involving testimony by a young girl. (CBC)

A trauma dog helped an alleged sexual assault victim as the young girl testified in a criminal trial in a Calgary courtroom Tuesday.

The seven-year-old’s father is charged with sexual assault with a weapon and forcible confinement involving the child and his wife.

"I do have a secret," said the girl who cannot be identified. "It's the whole reason I'm in foster care. It's about what my dad did."

Trauma dog Hawk helped a seven-year-old girl, who cannot be identified, testify at a sexual assault trial against her father. (Janice Fletcher)

Visible on a screen in the courtroom, the girl sat in a remote witness room beside Hawk — the three-year-old Labrador retriever specially trained to work with the victim assistance unit of the Calgary Police Service.

Hawk helps support witnesses and victims of crime, especially children. 

In what's believed to be a Canadian first, legislation that allows for a "support person" to accompany the girl was expanded by a Calgary judge to include Hawk after Crown prosecutor Rosalind Greenwood made the request.​ 

She said the girl has had some play dates with the dog to get to know him.

Amazing intuition, says handler

"It is amazing the intuition that they have, truly," said Hawk's handler Sgt. Brent Hutt. "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 says Hawk brings a non-judgmental aspect to a conversation.

"Often we'll ask a question, or a police officer will ask a question, and the person will answer to Hawk," said Hutt.

During Tuesday morning’s proceedings, the girl and the courtroom were shown a video of a police detective interviewing her about the alleged crime.

As the girl watched the video she patted the dog at times, and at other times showed the typical restlessness of a little girl.

The girl’s father watched the video from the prisoner’s box and showed little reaction. The trial is set to wrap up at the end of the week. 

"I think involving a court dog there's an immediate trust that children have with these animals, something that they wouldn't necessarily have with a court support person, even if they've met the person before," said Greenwood. "With an animal there's an immediate trust there." 

Court trauma dogs becoming more common

Already popular in the U.S., it's becoming more common to see dogs used to comfort vulnerable witnesses as they testify. Lucy, a victim services dog located in Camrose, Alta., was the first in the province and the second in Canada.

She has been taught to lay on her "special mat" for hours during a police interview or court session.

"I do believe this is going to become more prominent," said Ellen O'Neill-Stephens, the founder of Courthouse Dogs.

O'Neill-Stephens is a former prosecutor who came up with the idea of pairing victims of crime and dogs about a decade ago.

"When a dog like Hawk is lying there quiet and comfortable, people get the unconscious message that there is nothing wrong; that there is nothing to be afraid of," she said.

There are only four trauma dogs in Canada. Hawk is the only one in Calgary, but police plan to add another dog in the next year.

Police Chief Rick Hanson says while the stress of the situation can sometimes take a toll on Hawk, he says it's amazing how victims respond.

"I don't think people can ever understand, unless they've been victimized themselves, the trauma that's associated to certain types of crimes," he said.