Pilot program brings therapy dogs to RI Family Court

West Bay

WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) — Wagging tails and wet noses are becoming a common sight at Kent County Courthouse these days.

The court is halfway through a two-month therapy dog pilot program in conjunction with the Windwalker Humane Coalition for Professional Pet Assisted Therapy.

On Monday, therapy dogs Phoenix and Ben were at the ready, rolling over for belly rubs and doling out sloppy kisses to those cheeky enough to seek them.

Linda Jones is on the Windwalker advisory board, so when her husband — Family Court Magistrate Paul Jones — began researching the benefits of having dogs in the courthouse, she jumped at the chance to launch a pilot program in Rhode Island.

The idea got the blessing of Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Suttel and Family Court Chief Judge Michael Forte. In March, they launched a two-month trial at the McGrath Courthouse in Wakefield.

The dogs were there for family court, but because the courthouse is small and all courtrooms are on a single level, the dogs interacted with many folks who were feeling nervous or anxious.

Jones said it’s been remarkable to see them in action.

“I just had a conversation with one of the therapists about a gentleman who looked like he was really having a hard time, and then when he saw the dog, it was an ‘aha’ moment,” she said. “All of a sudden he said he felt so much better, and that’s typical of what we’re seeing.”

Craig Berke, Director of Communications for the Rhode Island Supreme Court, said family court, in particular, is a good place for the dogs because of the nature of the proceedings.

“People who come to family court are generally not here for a happy reason,” he explained. “We have juvenile crime, we have domestic relations, child support issues — the only happy occasions typically are adoptions. So people here are generally under a lot of stress, and it seemed like a nice thing to try to get people to relax a little bit. It seems to be working.”

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The pilot program in Washington County was a success and has been extended indefinitely. Berke foresees a similar outcome for Warwick.

Currently, the dogs visit the courthouses two days a week for a couple of hours each day, but Jones said they’re looking to add more days to their schedule. She said they’re also considering expanding to other divisions like Veteran’s Court.

“We’ve gotten such rave reviews, not only from the staff and the judges, but clients that have to appear in family court are expressing how it’s just been very calming for them,” she said.

The handlers and dogs from Windwalker undergo roughly 200 hours of training. They’re all volunteers, so the program comes at no cost. Berke said Windwalker’s insurance would cover any incidents, but so far there have been none.

“This seems to be a really friendly, positive event taking place in our hallways,” he said. “That’s not something that we typically see, and it’s a nice thing to see.”

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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