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Meet Monterey County’s ‘courtroom dogs’ who help kids face their abusers in court

MONTEREY COUNTY, Calif. (KION) Man's best friend has long been providing comfort to children with special needs, veterans experiencing PTSD and patients in hospitals. But in Monterey County, they're also providing comfort to children and victims of violent crimes who have to face their abusers in court.

The District Attorney's Office has two regulars in their office every day — a black and a yellow lab named Odie and Namaste.

But they're not just cute companions. Both work for the Monterey County Victim Assistance unit.

"Odie's been doing it for seven years. She's met with thousands of victims in the county. She has testified more than anybody I can imagine in terms of sitting on the stand or at the feet of victims or witnesses in court," said the DA's Chief Investigator, Ryan McGuirk. McGuirk is also Odie's handler.

Their job is to provide comfort and help some of the most vulnerable victims tell their stories in court.

"We had a domestic violence victim who was choked by her husband. And when she was relating back the facts of the incident, Odie got up and went right over to her neck area and was providing her with comfort. They just know. They're just very intuitive with people," said Pamela Patterson. Patterson is the manager for the Victim Witness Assistance Program, and Namaste's handler.

The dogs hang out around the office, and after work, go home with their handlers.

But in the courtroom, they sit under the witness stand, out of sight. Oftentimes, others in the court don't even know they're there.

"The jury is not aware that they are there supporting the victims. But, you know, at the end of the day, both of them are dogs. So they may snore or sometimes their nails hit up against the witness stand. And we try to disguise that," said Patterson.

But she says the dogs provide an invaluable service to victims in Monterey County.

"When I was working with children, I always had to find something that kids liked so that I could try and get closer to them for them to trust me," said Patterson. "Now we just walk in with our dogs and we really don't have to do any work at all. It really just brings that calmness to them and allows them to be able to disclose or to talk about the incident."

Odie and Namaste both have their own trading cards, coloring books that teach young children how the court system works and mini stuffed versions of themselves.

"When they want to come back because they want to see our dogs, you know that you're doing what's right. We've had clients who say, 'Can I take your normal stay home?' So we ordered these stuffed labs, so we're able to send them back home with Odie and Namaste," said Patterson.

Odie is now 10-years-old and nearing retirement.

"Her energy level is a little waning, but she still comes into work every day. But we are on a list for what Canine Companions considers a successor dog. So that she can transition into a more retirement, lounging on the couch lifestyle,' said McGuirk.

The dogs cost around $30,000 to train, but both Odie and Namaste were provided at no cost to the DA's Office from the nonprofit Canine Companions out of Santa Rosa.

"The dogs have truly been a been a miracle to the office, and to the community and to the county for those who have suffered, unfortunately at the hands of defendants and suspects in a horrific way," said McGuirk.

Canine Companions also serve adults and children with disabilities, and veterans with disabilities or PTSD. They run entirely off of donations. You can contribute online here.

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Lisa Principi

Lisa Principi is a reporter at KION News Channel 5/46.

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