It seems to many that Karl’s deafness may actually be an advantage in his case. When he walks into a busy courtroom with all of the usual frenzy of activity from lawyers, reporters, police officers and photographs, Karl doesn’t seem to notice. He is easily able to ignore the glances and stares that people turn on the white Boxer with the blue hat.
He is concentrating on his job and his job isn’t on the periphery of the action, it is right in the center. Karl is there for his children. The adults will have to go it alone. Karl is there for kids, especially those who will be enduring the pressures of testifying.
Karl is part of a team put together by Companions for Courage, a nonprofit working with the Central Florida court systems of Orange and Lake counties. He official moniker is “courthouse therapy dog.”
Karl has been with Joanne Hart-Rittenhouse since he was a puppy. Joanne hadn’t planned on getting a dog, but then a breeder called her with a request she couldn’t refuse.
Hart-Rittenhouse told the story of her introduction to Karl this way:
“She [the breeder] knew that I had rescued Boxers and they were all therapy dogs, This breeder called and said, ‘I have this little deaf white puppy, he’s 3 weeks old, I need to place him.’ I said I already had three dogs and I didn’t want any more and I wouldn’t know what to do with a deaf dog. And she said, ‘OK, then I’m going to put him to sleep.’ So, needless to say, we couldn’t let that happen.”
Ms. Hart-Rittenhouse started to work with Karl. She enlisted the help of a friend who was a behaviorist and she and Karl learn some sign. Not, just “some” signs, she decided to teach Karl American Sign Language (ASL) since she regularly goes to the National Deaf Academy with her therapy dogs.
“So he learned 10 signs, and then he learned 10 more, Now he’s up over 100 signs in American Sign Language.”
Hart-Rittenhouse was already working with Companions for Courage and it didn’t take long for them to realize that Karl had a special touch. They could see the traits of a great courthouse therapy dog in Karl.
“He’s great with children, he loves going to the Deaf Academy, he loves special needs children, And Karl’s a great courtroom dog because he tells no secrets. He listens, he’s a real good listener, and he has a calming effect on children, especially children with disabilities.”
The K-9th Circuit Program in Orange County pairs children with therapy dogs to help them become more comfortable with the process of testifying in court. The dogs stay with the child through depositions and other questionings and all the way through to the trial, if necessary, and sometimes even after.
These children are in a difficult situation. Sometimes they’ve been abused or neglected. Sometimes they’ve witnessed abuse or neglect — or worse. It can be scary for these children to open up, especially to strange adults. That’s why dogs like Karl are important.
One child had to go through two depositions and a trial, and Karl stayed with her the whole time – without doing much at all. (Christie Zizo)
Hart-Rittenhouse described the trial:
“It was a lot of hours on the witness stand, and Karl slept through the whole thing, which was really wonderful, He did his job. Because she couldn’t really reach down to pet him, she kicked her shoes off and ran her toes through his fur and knew that he was there if she needed him. He accompanied her into the witness stand, which gives a child confidence.”
Therapy dogs require special training, and they have to be registered through a therapy dog group. But not every therapy dog can be a courthouse therapy dog. These dogs have to put up with lots of noise, lots of activity. Nothing should faze them. Hart-Rittenhouse called it being “bomb proof.”
Karl’s deafness is actually an asset to his job. So is his size.
Lauren Brimmer manages the program for Orange County. She compares the reception big dogs get from these kids to the way kids react to members from the group Bikers Against Child Abuse.
“As soon as the kids realize the biker is there for them, they want the biggest one they can find,” Brimmer said, referring to the group, which offers friendship and support to children involved with child abuse. “And I think it’s the same with the dog.” ( Christie Zizo )
In fact, one child even asked if Karl would protect her during testimony.
“A lot of these children wouldn’t go to trial [without Karl]. The last child we had, she refused to go on the witness stand and she refused to talk to anybody,” and that’s why they brought Karl into the situation, Hart-Rittenhouse said.
The children aren’t the only ones reaping the benefits. Many of the courtroom staff members and even the judges feel more relaxed around Karl. Hart-Rittenhouse said people of all ages can benefit from the “zen” of having a therapy dog around. (Christie Zizo )
Karl’s service goes beyond the courtroom and to label him “just” a courtroom therapy dog would to a slight. In addition to going to court, Karl also goes to Hospice centers and reads with children,
The Center has ever created a coloring book for Karl. He uses the book to teach children how to approach disabled animals and how to take care of them.
The local Orlando paper reported that Companions for Courage is looking for more courtroom therapy dogs. (Orlando Sentinel)
(Jake, another Companions for Courage Courtroom Therapy Dog – photo by Orlando Sentinal)
Joanne finishes her description of Karl with: “He is a hero, no two ways about it.”
We hope you have enjoyed Karl the Boxer – a deaf Courthouse Therapy Dog.
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