PROBLEMATIC BEHAVIOR OR ACTIVITY
During highly sensitive and emotional situations, individuals may benefit from the acceptance, affection, skills, and support of trained therapy dogs. The mission of Portland Area Canine Therapy Teams (PACTT) is to comfort and offer compassionate support through animal-assisted therapy to members of vulnerable populations in a variety of situations, such as in courtrooms, reentry centers, and when responding to survivors and witnesses of domestic violence, including children.
IMPACT ON THE COMMUNITY
Certified Portland Area Canine Therapy Teams provide an invaluable community service by furthering people’s health and well-being through positive interactions with dogs. Therapy animals offer acceptance, affection, and physical and mental support while eliciting smiles and lowering stress. In a courtroom setting, therapy dogs can facilitate positive interactions, helping to lower anxiety and set a tone of support from the court team and for participants.
Guide Dogs for the Blind and DoveLewis Emergency Animal Hospital partnered to create PACTT. The animals are career-changed and retired guide dogs that have been bred for their calm temperament. They receive several thousand hours of training and are among the most highly trained working dogs. PACCT teams consist of one handler and a dog and are certified through the two agencies involved. Handlers receive extensive training, submit to background checks, and are insured through DoveLewis. Teams are identified by photo badges and vests with program logos. Teams are required to provide a current health screening, vaccination records, and a rabies certificate.
In a criminal justice setting, the PACTT Program provides support to participants of the award-winning Beaverton Sobriety Opportunity for Beginning Recovery (B-SOBR) court and the Multnomah Success Through Accountability, Restitution, and Treatment (START) court. Both treatment court programs offer a constructive alternative to jail while addressing the root causes of criminal behavior and helping participants rebuild their lives. PACTT actively supports participants in recovery by accompanying them at court hearings to provide comfort and alleviate stress.
The PACTT program also recently began visiting the Northwest Regional Re-Entry Center, where the dogs engage with offenders who are working to make a safe and successful transition from prison to their communities. There is also a team working with the Hillsboro Police Department to assist the Domestic Violence Response Team (DVRT) advocates and officers in providing crisis response services to survivors and witnesses of domestic violence crimes, including children when appropriate.
BASED ON RESEARCH
The Human Animal Bond Research Initiative (HABRI) Foundation is a nonprofit research and education organization that gathers, funds, and shares scientific research to demonstrate the positive health impacts of companion animals. The human-animal bond is a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and animals influenced by behaviors that are essential to the health and well-being of both. This includes, but is not limited to, emotional, psychological, and physical interactions of people, animals, and the environment.
The HABRI Foundation is an invaluable resource for research and information on the human-animal bond. Since its formation in 2010, HABRI has created the world’s largest online library of human-animal interaction science, HABRI Central, and has funded more than $500,000 in innovative research projects. The growing body of scientific evidence that demonstrates the specific health benefits of the human-animal bond can be used by everyone—from doctors to policymakers to families—to make informed decisions that improve the health and well-being of people, pets, and the communities where they live.
PACTT provides animal assisted therapy at no cost to the facilities visited. The program is 100 percent donor-funded through DoveLewis Emergency Animal Hospital with specially bred dogs and highly-trained dog and handler teams from Guide Dogs for the Blind.
Speaking to a judge in court is often unfamiliar and stressful, creating anxiety for individuals. A dog attending drug court, mental health court, and other restorative justice proceedings can provide an element of calm to individuals in drug withdrawal or struggling with recovery. When they pet the dog, they often relax and can communicate more easily.
Feedback from participating treatment court programs:
“You and everyone in the DoveLewis program really do care.…The B-SOBR program is tough, requires accountability and change, and restores lives—but it cannot really happen or be sustained without caring. This is why having your program present and as part of our court review is a perfect fit.” - Judge John Mercer, who oversees the B-SOBR program, addressing PACTT coordinator Kathy Loter
“The canine teams bring a welcomed sense of comfort to the drug court participants, their loved ones attending for support, and the staff in the courtroom. Even with just beginning this partnership I’ve already seen the therapy dogs assist in de-escalating a participant in a very anxious state, provide smiles to participants and their children, along with lots of excited tail wagging with the therapy dogs!” - Natalie Reyes, START court program coordinator
CRITICAL SUCCESS FACTORS
A number of broad factors contribute to the success of the PACCT program, including the following:
- Highly trained, certified canine and handler teams;
- Supportive facilities and staff who acknowledge the human-animal bond and the positive effects provided by the therapy teams; and
- A dedicated program manager who ensures that the best team is matched with a facility’s needs.
More specifically, a therapy dog engaging participants in a courthouse setting must:
- Possess a quiet, calm demeanor.
- Be adaptable, highly social, and focused.
- Be able to tolerate people wearing a variety of clothing, from all walks of life, angry people, drug users, children who invade boundaries, erratic behavior, and emotionally charged situations.
- Most important, the dog must know when to engage with people in public and when to become almost invisible for extended periods of time during courtroom proceedings.
Having highly trained, certified teams is important to ensure program success and achieve goals and overall safety. It is imperative to assign teams to environments in which they will best serve people needing this support. Ensuring the animal’s success in the environment is important for the program’s overall success.
The program’s success also relies on everyone understanding and supporting the goals and purpose of animal-assisted therapy teams.