Sharing puppy love in Family Court

Two-month trial program brings therapy dogs into often stressful environment

The Cranston Herald ·

Quincy was in Family Court on Thursday. He’s a big boy so his mom, Lisa Weinberg, keeps him on a short leash.

He walked the corridor as if he didn’t have a care in the world, which he probably didn’t, and was happy to meet anyone who cared to stop. He gave them all his sign of approval – a swish of his tail – and, if they were lucky, a sniff followed by a kiss to an outstretched hand.

Quincy and Lisa are one of 14 Windwalker Pet Therapy Dog teams that will be visiting Kent County Family Court on Mondays and Thursdays under a two-month trial that got its start on National Adoption Day, Nov. 23.

Introducing trained therapy dogs in court corridors – they aren’t going into the courtrooms at this point – was suggested about two years ago when a program in the state of Washington showed it helped to reduce stress and improved the courthouse environment. Family Court Magistrate Paul Jones Jr. and his wife, Linda, both members of the Windwalker Humane Coalition advisory board, have been key players in the Rhode Island movement, says Craig Berke, Rhode Island Supreme Court assistant administrator of community outreach and public relations.

Berke said Magistrate Jones initiated the conversation. He said the court “had concerns,” ranging from whether dogs might disrupt decorum to “what happens when a dog needs to go?” There was also the issue of insurance and what could happen if a dog bit someone. He said Windwalker carries insurance and they assured the court there is virtually no risk of biting. Both dog handlers and the dogs go through extensive training prior to being eligible for the program.

Then there are the possible benefits.

“It’s really not a happy occasion to go to court,” Berke said.

The possibility of altering that and offering some relief outweighed the concerns. Michael Forte, chief judge of the Family Court, agreed to a two-month trial at the Washington County Court House, which started in August. Unlike Kent, Family Court at Washington County does not have a floor of its own. The therapy dogs, therefore, worked the full range of courts.

Berke visited the court as an observer and found the program was working as hoped. Windwalker is providing the program at no cost to the courts.

“It gets people to relax. That’s all we were looking for,” Berke said.

He said there is no plan at this time to extend the program to the Providence County Family Court.

“Garrahy [Courthouse] is so congested. We’re not looking to bring it to Providence,” he said.

Linda Jones teamed up with Pearl Salloto, founder of Windwalker, in 1995 when they introduced dogs to the classroom at the Feinstein High School in Providence. Based in Warwick, Salloto is a tireless advocate of the qualities of dogs and their value in pet assisted therapy. Working with former Warwick state Rep. Al Gemma and the late Warwick Rep. Paul Sherlock, Salloto was instrumental in promoting legislation recognizing the role of therapy dogs.

Jones said the organization currently has 100 members and 75 pet therapy teams.

The D.J., Maj-En & Panda Girl Inspired Professional Pet Assisted Therapy Certificate Program is comprised of 12 weeks of training at Providence College without a dog followed by 10 weeks with their dog at the Elmhurst Heathcare & Rehabilitation Center. The pet owner and the dog are then ready for a 10-hour “internship,” where they are paired with a mentor in preparation of initiating their own program.

Judy Van-Wyk and her Australian Shepard, Curry, make up one of the teams at Kent Family Court.

“They don’t feel the stress,” Van-Wyk says of the dogs. Curry was delighted with the attention. “He thinks everybody is here to see him,” she said.

Indeed, Curry didn’t let anyone get by him without a friendly wiggle from his behind – his tail has been docked.

Weinstein said she has encountered a single situation where a person was not happy to see Quincy. She said she picked up the person’s uneasiness and learned they were afraid of dogs. She kept Quincy at a distance and the person relaxed. There was no incident.

Sheriff Betty Silvia, owner of two dogs, has worked the courts for the past 15 years and says she looks forward to Mondays and Thursdays.

“It puts a smile on their face when they’re going through a couple of hours of nonstop stress,” she said.

She finds that true not only of those appearing in court but also court employees, lawyers and others in the courthouse.

“It’s usually contentious up here. It’s really not pretty up here,” she said.

And now there are the dogs.

“They love you no matter what,” she said.