Testifying before a judge and jury can intimidate even the strongest adult. But imagine being a 10-year-old child being asked to tell a very personal, painful and shameful story to a group of total strangers all while sitting in a seat seemingly in the spotlight. 

A young Marshall County girl did just that last week but, luckily, she had the help of a facility dog; a first in Marshall County. 

Dog handler Tonya Willingham brought a golden retriever named Fitzgerald II to sit with the victim of alleged sexual abuse Wednesday as she testified. 

Fitzgerald II laid at the young girl’s feet, never making a sound and barely moving throughout the entire time she testified. The girl was able to reach down to pet Fitzgerald II when the going got tough and the tears started to fall. 

“She was a nervous wreck,” said Deana Robinson, the child’s biological mother. 

“That dog helped her so much today. 

“The handler brought the dog in to meet her and stayed with her for about 45 minutes before she testified. She was able to reach down and pet him when she needed to. 

“He helped her a lot!”

Fitzgerald II was brought to Guntersville through the HERO program - a statewide program that provides service trained facility dogs to any victim or witness in need. The facility dogs utilize their commands and behaviors to mitigate stress as victims navigate through the court system. 

HERO stands for Helping Every Survivor Realize their Opportunity and Strength.

Bearing names like Wendell III, Logan V, Kuzco II (based at the Barrie Center in Gadsden) and Zurg, the dogs are able to support children who area testifying, giving statements or other tasks within the court system that may be traumatizing, intimidating or overwhelming for a small child.

“Research has shown that dogs release oxytocin in our brains which help to slow down our breathing, our heart rate and to help relieve our anxiety. It also shows that just having a dog present and looking at them helps them to free up their brain to where you can think and process things and interact with people better,” explained facility dog handler Tonya Willingham. 

“In cases where the allegations are very serious and traumatic in nature, the dogs are there and help provide the court with the tools necessary for the witness or victim to be able to interact with not only the prosecution but also the defense that way the jury has all of the evidence in the case where they can make a fair and impartial ruling that way justice can be served.”

What is a facility dog?

A facility dog is not to be confused with a therapy dog, while their purposes may be similar. 

Therapy dogs are volunteers that have permission to visit a public facility. They pass an obedience test and are registered by a therapy dog program. Ongoing follow-up is not required. Often times, therapy dogs are found in nursing homes, hospitals and schools where they can provide a calming presence for a patient or student for a short amount of time.

Facility dogs, however, are expertly trained and matched with professional and certified handlers. They are trained for more than two years and work a minimum of 20 hours per week. They engage in interventions or tasks that benefit the patient or client with the direction of their handler. Each dog must pass a standardized public safety exam through Assistance Dogs International and have ongoing recertifications. Fitzgerald II works solely with clients in the criminal justice setting. Other facility dogs may be trained to assist special needs clients who need help retrieving dropped items, opening doors or other services.

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