Gino, a 2-year-old chocolate English lab, has noticeably low energy.
That’s what made him perfect to be trained as a facility dog at Duo, a nonprofit organization that trains dogs to be assistants to people with disabilities or to work in a facility as a calming, nearly therapeutic presence.s
Gino worked with an attorney at the St. Louis-based nonprofit to learn how to provide support and stress relief for victims or witnesses who have to take part in court proceedings. Over 18 months, he spent time in a variety of Missouri courthouses, socializing with others as he became accustomed to the surroundings.
During the week leading up to Thanksgiving, Sauk County Victims Witness Coordinator Linda Hoffman spent time training with him. After certification, they made the trip together back to Wisconsin. He now has permanent residence in Sauk County and makes the daily commute with Hoffman to the courthouse for a full day of work.
“Primarily, his function is to kind of provide support, stress relief for any victims or witnesses that would encounter our office,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman said she had been thinking for about a decade about using a dog in her work but dismissed the idea over cost concerns and the likelihood of being turned down if she asked.
“I thought, ‘What a great thing that would be to have for victims and anyone,’” Hoffman said, noting her personal love of dogs. Nearly everyone at the office expresses happiness when they see Gino, she said.
Once the Sauk County District Attorney’s Office agreed to his presence, Hoffman started the application. Gino was obtained from Duo without a cost to the county because he is donated, which means he will be “officially” owned by the nonprofit until he is forced into retirement about eight years from now.
So far, he hasn’t had much courtroom experience. A one-time “test run” was successful, Hoffman said. The plan is to include him more often as time goes on. Courthouse facility dogs can offer comfort physically in a variety of ways while quietly sitting unseen in the witness box. A witness can simply need to hold a leash in their hand or feel the dog’s fur near their feet.
Gino shares an office with Hoffman. A small bed sits near the wall across from her desk, though he frequently moves around and under the desk. The 9 to 5 schedule for Gino usually includes some down time. Hoffman described parts of his days as “lazy” and before he does the job of huddling close to a crying mother or being a steadfast pal to an upset child he tends to be “lying there like a bump on a log,” she said.
Gino helps those outside of the county offices, too. Hoffman said defense attorneys have requested Gino’s help comforting clients. Witnesses in cases such as divorce proceedings that can be emotionally draining can also seek help from Gino.
Despite the help he can offer to people of all ages, the “ultimate priority” is to have him comfort children as they give a statement in the courtroom, Hoffman said.
Sarah Strautmann of Reedsburg said she has seen the effect of Gino firsthand with a girl who has been dealing with a sexual assault case that has elapsed over nearly two years. Gino has been a comfort to the child more than once, Strautmann said.
“The court system is brutal,” she said. “Once she pets the dog, everything just goes away. It’s always something that makes her feel better.”
Specifically, Gino helps relieve both anxiety and stress the girl experiences each time she has to go to court, Strautmann said.
“He’s very calm and very sweet,” she said. “I think all courthouses should have an emotional support dog like him.”
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