She’s the tail-wagging, four-legged friend helping people go through court. Now, Guide Dog China is being used as a face for the Canine Court Companion Program. See her journey. Picture: Tim Pascoe
She’s the tail-wagging, four-legged friend helping people go through court. Now, Guide Dog China is being used as a face for the Canine Court Companion Program. See her journey. Picture: Tim Pascoe

Meet the canine helping people through court

When China the black labrador bursts through the Sutherland Court House doors, she brings light and happiness into what is mostly an intense and stressful environment.

The two-and-a-half-year-old therapy Guide Dog has become a welcome fixture at the courthouse as part of the Canine Court Companion Program.

Fiona Lamont and China at Sutherland Court, where she helps parties, witnesses and others involved in court proceedings by minimising stress and anxiety. Picture: Tim Pascoe
Fiona Lamont and China at Sutherland Court, where she helps parties, witnesses and others involved in court proceedings by minimising stress and anxiety. Picture: Tim Pascoe

Guide Dogs NSW/ACT CEO Dale Cleaver said the organisation started working with the NSW Government on the program after a successful Australian-first trial at Manly Local Court in 2017.

"We know that the presence of a dog can help calm people and lower anxiety, and it's wonderful to see our therapy dogs doing this at 10 courthouses across NSW," Mr Cleaver said.

Guide Dog Puppies Katie and Kasey who will one day grow up to help others in a range of roles, just like China. Picture: Richard Dobson
Guide Dog Puppies Katie and Kasey who will one day grow up to help others in a range of roles, just like China. Picture: Richard Dobson

China's owner and handler Fiona Lamont said helping victims and witnesses manage the trauma of the court system was China's calling in life.

"This is what she was born to do, without a doubt in my mind," Ms Lamont said.

"When we go to court, she just runs straight in now. She doesn't wait in line like she's meant to.

"We get her coat on and that's when work time starts. Then she just takes herself around and stops at people as they need it."

Fiona Lamont with therapy dog China. Picture: Tim Pascoe
Fiona Lamont with therapy dog China. Picture: Tim Pascoe

While the dogs are not permitted in the actual court rooms, they spend time in the publicly accessible areas and domestic violence safe rooms.

"China is very in tune with people's emotions, especially when anybody is visibly upset," Ms Lamont said.

"On AVO (apprehended violence order) days at court, there is a safe room or quiet room for victims of abuse or those who have needed to take an AVO out on someone.

"They're usually quite distraught so the dogs will provide entertainment and put a smile on people's faces."

NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman has been integral in the success and growth of the program.

"As Attorney-General, I piloted the trial at Manly Court and it was a howling success with an almost unanimous endorsement of the program there from court users, court employees and workers," Mr Speakman said.

Attorney-General Mark Speakman with Golden Retriever Lucy and Labrador Ralph. Picture: Adam Yip
Attorney-General Mark Speakman with Golden Retriever Lucy and Labrador Ralph. Picture: Adam Yip

"For many people who aren't regular court users, it's a formal process that can be often very daunting.

"People are revisiting their trauma and can become re-traumatised by having to tell their stories about what has brought them to court.

"There is evidence from overseas studies that shows when calm witnesses are calmer and more relaxed, they give more reliable and credible evidence."

Mr Speakman - who owns 13-year-old Labrador Ralph and four-year-old golden retriever Lucy - said other states would be "barking mad" if they chose not to adopt the program.

 



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