Pictures: Tessa Stow and River

Gently goes the River

Sometimes the most supportive companion through difficult times has four legs, silky ears, and big brown eyes. Welcome River, the Court Support Dog and our centre’s newest best friend.

Over the next 12 weeks, River will be at the Neighbourhood Justice Centre on Intervention Order days to comfort victim-survivors of family violence.  

While we do our best to make the justice process as easy as possible, going to court is inherently stressful for people required to retell or hear harrowing stories, absorb a lot of information, and navigate foreign processes.  However for the duration of the pilot, victim-survivors, many of whom are women, can have a gentle companion by their side as they work with lawyers and support teams or wait for their time in court.

Tessa Stow, River’s handler and founder of K9 Support, the organisation we’ve partnered with, says the presence of Court Support Dogs can be profoundly therapeutic.

“You can see people release the tension they’ve been holding when they spend time with the dogs. For a moment they can concentrate on something else—a sentient being who cares for them,” said Tessa.

Tessa Stow also brings her own expertise in the art of putting people at ease. As well as being a skilled dog handler, she's a counsellor and Australian Counselling Association member, a background she says enables her to listen without judgement and understand the importance of confidentiality.

If you think all of this something only dog lovers thrive on, think again. Research done at the John Hopkins Medical Center shows that simply patting a dog can lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, and raises oxytocin, the “love hormone”, the same hormone that bonds mothers to their babies.

Now anyone who’s met a Golden-Retriever or Labrador puppy knows they can be, well, rambunctious. Surprisingly, they are perfectly suited to providing calm and gentle support to people in stressful situations and it's all down to training.

From 8 weeks to 18 months, River worked with Tessa Stow to learn the subtle doggy arts of socialisation and obedience, and to the skill level of assistance dog. However, while assistance dogs are trained to support one person living with disability (think guide dog), court support dogs are trained to identify and respond to many people, particularly those in distress.

River attended the memorial of the four Victorian police officers who lost their lives in the line of duty. “Her handler let River off her lead, and she went straight to the son of one of the officers and remained with him, even accompanying him as he laid a wreath to those fallen. She knew who needed her most,” Tessa Stow explained.

But what about the dog’s well-being? Do they suffer job stress? Tessa says they can, which is why it’s important for handlers to understand dog behaviours. And of course, like the rest of us, court dogs enjoy plenty of downtime. The minute Tessa removes River’s jacket she goes from professional to pooch. 

“When she’s wearing her jacket, she knows she’s in work mode. But once it comes off, she's a regular fun-loving dog who loves walks with her humans and showing off her favourite soft toy. And she’s a real “foodie”.

Support Dogs have been part of the health care sector for many years so their use in the justice system is a natural progression for how large, complex sectors make life a little easier for people in need.

Dogs are now working in many justice settings across Australia, including courts in New South Wales and Canberra, and Victoria, and with Victoria Police. 

Tessa and River make the perfect team to help victim-survivors of family violence. As Tessa said, "the right dog in the right place is an incredible memory, a light in a dark space."

For more information, contact the pilot's project manager, Brooke Alford. Call us on 9948 8777.