Stray Grows Up to Be a Support Dog for Victims and Witnesses
Five years ago, a Golden Retriever-Irish Setter puppy wandered the streets of Phoenix as a stray. Today, he works for the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, comforting and supporting young crime victims and witnesses. His name is Sam.
Sam had been rescued and was living at the Arizona Humane Society when the Foundation for Service Dog Support came by looking for recruits in 2008. The nonprofit saw in him the qualities needed for work as a service dog.
He trained for a year before being partnered with Rhonda Stewart, a victim advocate with the county attorney's office. The pair underwent six months of training together before Sam went to live and work with her full-time as part of the new K-9 Victim Support Program, one of the first in the country when it launched in 2010.
Sam works primarily on cases involving sexual abuse or family violence, helping victims and witnesses as young as five emotionally handle the interview, trial, and sentencing process.
"The kids just love him," Stewart said during an interview in her downtown office, where Sam has his own area complete with comfy bed and plenty of toys thanks to PetSmart, which also provides his food and grooming through a partnership with the program. "When we have kids involved in a case, we start building rapport a month or two before trial, so they can get to know the prosecutor, get to feel comfortable before having to talk about the horrible things that have happened."
She explained that simply by being his laidback and loving self, "Sam makes it easier, less stressful for the kids to talk. He bridges the gap. The prosecutor can ask, 'Do you have dogs at home,' and from there the conversation starts. Coming into our office is no longer something the kids dread," Stewart said, adding that "The ultimate hope is less secondary trauma, that the kids look back and remember Sam, opposed to being retraumatized by a cold, dark criminal justice system."
In addition to offering comfort and support at the county attorney's office, Sam waits with the young victims and witnesses outside and inside the courtroom.
"The kids spend a lot of time waiting, sitting for hours before going in to testify," Stewart said. "They sleep on him, use him as a pillow. Sam takes their mind off what's going on. He puts them at ease before they go inside."
Once in the courtroom, Sam sits quietly at their feet. He logged 200 hours alone in court during training, learning to be very still in such an environment. Sam mastered the skill and has since spent thousands of hours at work and has helped hundreds of victims, proving vital to many convictions. He does not accompany those testifying to the stand, but knowing Sam sits nearby gives them the confidence and security they need to tell their stories in an often-intimidating environment.
"Sam knows that when he's in court, he has to be very quiet. He can't be disruptive at all. We don't want to cause any problems in the criminal justice system," Stewart explained, adding that the judge and jury often don't notice him at all. "When the kids leave the courtroom, they are able to engage with Sam again and get all of their stress out."
While Sam does spend most of his time with young victims and witnesses, the county attorney’s office does make him available to adults, as well.
"In cases involving stalking victims, women who are really fearful find comfort in him. He provides a physical-type barrier and gives them a sense of safety and protection," Stewart said.
Sam only goes into the office when he has meetings and court to attend. He spends days off at home with his brother, Peekaboo, Stewart's nine-year-old Schnauzer, playing and sometimes getting into trouble.
"When Sam is home, he wants to play, play, play. He always has a toy in his mouth," she said. "He's also gotten into a trashcan or two. My daughter asks, 'Are you sure he’s good at work?'"
Stewart forgives Sam his naughty streak; after all, he regularly soaks up the stress of others. The effect that stress has on him stays on her mind.
"The average working life of a service dog is eight to ten years, depending on the capacity," she said. "We'll gauge his stress level as he gets older to see how much he really can take in court. Because he can sense the tension in the courtroom and sees the tears, it really wears him out."
Stewart takes Sam to the park after each workday so he can shake off the effects, and the entire family regularly travels around the state. Recent trips north to snow-covered Payson also have allowed Sam to simply be a playful pup.
To learn more about Sam and the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office K-9 Victim Support Program, visit his Facebook page.
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