If dogs could talk, what a tale therapy dog Lou Lou would tell.
She visits the Goulburn Courthouse every Monday and, through some unseen power, is able to relieve the stress of court appearances.
Former teacher and Lou Lou’s handler Louise Allison relates multiple stories of positive reactions following a visit to the courthouse. Louise and Lou Lou are part of the NSW Government’s Canine Court Companion Program.
“One lady patting Lou Lou in the court’s ‘safe’ room said ‘now my blood pressure has gone down. I feel better’,” Louise said. “I usually approach people and say ‘are you a dog lover?’ Most people want to pat Lou Lou.”
There have been particular breakthroughs with teenagers attending court, often agitated, but after a visit from Lou Lou, calmer.
The success of the program has been validated by a Monash University evaluation. This review showed the value of therapy dogs to both court users and staff.
“The court staff loves us coming. Often you will get both parties [to a court matter] in the same area. Sometimes security has to be called but when the dogs are there, the calls to security are fewer because they have such a positive impact,” Louise said.
The NSW Government funds Guide Dogs NSW/ACT to keep the program operating in 10 locations in metropolitan and regional NSW. The program was recently extended until July 2020.
Local MP Wendy Tuckerman agreed the therapy dogs, that undergo special training to visit the courts, had won the hearts of people at Goulburn Courthouse.
“They’ve provided significant comfort to people feeling anxious or overwhelmed,” Mrs Tuckerman, a former AFP officer, said.
“Victims and witnesses have reported feeling calmer and focused after spending time with the dogs, making it easier for them to give evidence.”
Goulburn Courthouse Registrar Bernadette Hilton said the benefits of the dog therapy program were numerous. “It has a positive impact on everyone; not just the victims but the offenders as well,” she said.
“We had one young person who was quite aggressive but after a visit from Lou Lou, was a different person.
“There are also benefits for staff. It can be quite a stressful environment but when we touch base with Lou Lou there’s an emotional connection.
“I think any animal project would be successful here because there’s no judgment with animals. The therapy dogs are the only people without an opinion at the courthouse.
“With Lou Lou, I think of those beautiful eyes. She is so in tune with people’s feelings. And Lou Lou’s dog handler is just as outstanding. Her ability to interact with people, her calm and non-judgemental manner…I think Louise and Lou Lou reflect each other.”
Dogs and volunteering are a big part of Louise Allison’s life. She’s a former teacher and has also spent considerable time in HR within the public service. Now retired, volunteering gives her a chance to ‘make a difference’.
“I’ve volunteered at the Goulburn Library for about 10 years with my other dog Cooper but he was too old to start at the courthouse. Guide Dogs phoned and told me they’d found a new dog for me but they said her name was Louise, but we can call her Lou Lou,” she said.
As a dog handler at court, Louise’s background has been instrumental to the success of their Monday visits to the courthouse.
“When I was teaching I took part in a program on protective behaviors and those skills have really helped me, especially when we meet women who may have suffered domestic violence.”
While Louise and ‘Lou Lou’ visit the courthouse on Monday, Vanessa and ‘Finn’, the other therapy dog pair, visit on a Wednesday.
Over the past year, the NSW Government has gradually introduced the Canine Court Companion program in partnership with Guide Dogs NSW/ACT at courts in Burwood, Campbelltown, Gosford, Goulburn, Lismore, Nowra, Orange, Sutherland, and Wagga Wagga.