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You Can Tell When There’s Something Special About Them: Meet Chuck and Rikki

Chuck Mitchell and his wife have had animals all their lives and were unaware of terming the relationship between them and their animals as the human-animal bond. The human-animal bond focuses on the relationships that are built and encompasses all relationships that uniquely develop between humans and animals – in this case specifically humans and dogs. It does not require a specific scientific background or a background in animal therapy. With all of their experience with animals, Mitchell and his wife have been able to recognize animals that have something special about them and the way they are able to connect with humans to comfort and relieve stress. Mitchell was able to tell that there was something special about Rikki, his Golden Retriever, and the way she was able to interact and create bonds. Rikki has created relationships with humans that develop and intensify the human animal bond to bring about positive results.

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Rescuing Rikki Lake Ponchartrain

In early 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit, a lot of people, animals, and businesses were forced to start over. In many cases people had to find new homes and were unable to take care of their animals in order to take care of their immediate families. The road to recovery was a hard one especially from such a huge natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina. Many animals needed homes and assistance to recover as well – oftentimes people just think about the human casualties and the need to send relief to them. But animals can change lives in ways people don’t expect or know until they enter our lives and change them. During this time of need Mitchell and his wife opened their home to more animals because of their love for dogs. They also knew just how special every animal can be, but they were in for a surprise that would guide them on a path that no one could have expected. Soon Mitchell and his wife would be returning to their roots of always being active and aware of what was going on in their community to influence change.

Rikki, a thirteen week old Golden Retriever, and others were dropped off to the house by a member of the local humane society. Immediately Mitchell began observing the unique bonds Rikki created with people to comfort them and relieve their anxiety. When meeting with their vet Mitchell mentioned this unique bond and was put in contact with a small group that had a couple dozen animal therapy teams.

The Case that Changed it All

Northern Florida is very conservative; it has taken a long time to be able to use dogs in depositions, interviews, and testimonies. For a long time animal therapy teams were not allowed in the courtroom with the victims they had been working with to relieve the anxiety to allow the victim to find their voice. In 2009, Mitchell first met Chloe* who was 7 years old; she was first raped when she was 5 by a close family friend. She was able to tell her mom about it, who then reported it to a sheriff. She had trouble testifying about it in the ensuing years; they showed her a picture of Rikki and Chloe asked to meet Rikki. When Chloe met Rikki and Chuck, she was able to find comfort and begin her own healing process by finding a special friend in Rikki. Rikki by law was unable to accompany Chloe into the courtroom – instead she had to wait patiently outside of the courthouse. Chloe got into the courtroom and got scared and ran past her family until she reached the comfort of Rikki. She laid there with Rikki for 30 minutes until she could calm down and go back in and testify against the man who would get a lifetime sentence. This reaction surprised everyone and paved the way to let Rikki be the first dog able to go in the courtroom due to mutual consent from all parties. Chuck decided the next step was to find a way where the dogs could accompany their victims into the courtroom.

That afternoon Chuck drafted a law, and got lobbyists that volunteered and went through the different legislative hearings. Even Chloe’s mom testified for this legislation because of what Rikki and animal therapy teams had done for her own daughter. There was no objection to the legislation specifically allowing dogs to go into the courthouse with victims 16 or younger; authorities just wanted it in writing and signed into law to appease all parties and reinforce the success. The legislation became official in 2011.

One of the Most Memorable Experiences – Paying it Forward Rikki_and_Loic.JPG

Rikki and Mitchell have been working as an Animal Therapy team for nearly eight years. Every morning they go into the stroke unit and into the brain and trauma area. One Thursday morning they go in. One Thursday a man immediately lit up when he saw Rikki. Rikki sensed this and guided Mitchell over and the man started petting Rikki. He told Mitchell that he loved Golden Retrievers and was an old board member of the Humane Society. The man then went on to mention that he and his wife had come down to help start the medical science program at Florida State University. It’s a small world for sure – the man knew Mitchell’s neighbor and friend. As Rikki was comforting him, Mitchell told the story of how Rikki helped that neighbor, the best friend of the old humane society board member. Mitchell asked why he had not seen the man at their mutual friend’s funeral where Mitchell had given the eulogy. The man from the hospital told Mitchell he and his wife had been out of the country and were sad they were unable to attend the funeral.

“Rikki has always been able to comfort people and cut the tension as a way to relieve the tension,” says Mitchell. “Rikki and the daughter and husband walk into (the neighbor) Dr. Paul’s room, to say goodbye before the family did. Now Rikki loves baby carrots – her favorite treat – everyone loves to feed her carrots. So I stuffed one of the baby carrots in one of Paul’s fist, Rikki went over to dig the carrot out of his hand, Paul’s hand start stroking Rikki’s muzzle, her nose up in his hand. The neurologist’s eyes are starting to get really wide. They start to see him petting Rikki, and reacts to his daughter’s voice, and then he passed. Talking to the man, I recounted that if I hadn’t rescued Rikki, that she would not have been able to help all of the thousands of people, but also his best friend cross over, my little way to remember to ‘pay it forward’.”

Animal Therapy – More than Meets the Eye

Animal therapy continues to develop and influence the human-animal bond and is emphasized in the Courthouse Therapy Dogs Program throughout Florida. Animal therapy in general, helps the credibility and unique relationships animals can build with humans – the more times people see dogs and cats out serving the public the more open the public will be to these creative and research-proven techniques. This brings to light the positive relationships that people can have with animals that allow people to recognize the value of the unique friendships. People start to see what they can do and it allows them to work in more places. At first in the courthouse, Mitchell and Rikki were given strict permission to get to work with one victim advocate office, but they didn’t want to see the dog – the two-member team was only allowed to enter through the freight entrance. Now it’s very open and they want to make it comfortable for all people and to show them the relationships with the dogs, and now they are starting to be allowed in because these dogs are recognized as such a valuable presence for everyone in these high-stress environments, but only trained teams that are able to control and handle all situations should be let into these situations. Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare’s official service works with 14 schools, and a couple of hospitals.

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“Animals can become companions for humans where other humans are not allowed in. A dog will never judge you, but they will love you, snuggle into you to keep you warm. Dogs will create bonds that humans cannot make. They will influence, comfort, and release stress so that one can be comfortable in even talking about their situations which allows them to honest and truthful with themselves. Animals are constantly changing the lives of children and empower the children to find their own voice so they can heal,” says Mitchell. This happens through the development of relationships between the dogs and children as they learn to trust one another with their secrets and hidden truths. The dogs have been most influential; their innate skills give them empathy for someone else. They have such a special presence – they continue to be selfless as they constantly serve others.

The Second District Courts of Florida comprises eight counties where the same crime can be prosecuted differently based on the area and the how federal laws are enforced. The courthouse dogs program is just a way to help the victims and to help people become more comfortable with the situations. Each area has their own needs, whether they have child advocacy centers, animal therapy teams, or have a few teams that can be brought in and utilized for their area. There is no national certification specifically for courthouse work, but there are standards which ensure that the dogs are calm, well-behaved, and not aggressive, and they must be certified for working with kids and especially children who have been traumatized.

Those who certify teams also provide insurance – general liability – if the dogs cause any incidents or injury, but they are stood behind by the company that are willing to ensure the teams. “The bottom line is that in the last 20 years there have been zero reported incidents of a dog even clawing, scratching, or biting anyone,” says Mitchell. “They are doing their job to make sure that things like that don’t happen.” About half the states in the country have some sort of court therapy dog program or with the courthouses in partnerships of some sort.

Moving Forward

Moving forward Mitchell and the Courthouse Therapy Dogs program are developing curriculum for the medical students and nursing students that will expose them to animal therapy so they can understand the value. One medical school and three nursing schools are starting to teach students to really appreciate the importance of human-animal bond work. This will expose more people to animal therapy and allow it to be utilized in more areas across the country. Mitchell is starting to work with someone who is writing a book on this work and the Courthouse Therapy Dog program that is offered as a service of the Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare. This will encourage everyone to let special dogs be more than a personal special dog, but the world’s special dog to illustrate to everyone the power of the human-animal bond and to reach out to those in need of comfort to heal their hearts and give them the opportunity to come to terms with their experiences and find their voice.

More about the Courthouse Therapy Dogs program can be found at their website.

*Name changed to protect privacy.

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