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Meet the dog that comforts children who testify in court

Some of the most vulnerable victims and witnesses involved in court cases are finding comfort in special canines. The facility dogs help children cope with the trauma of facing an accuser or giving testimony in court.

When Pella is on the job, she sees the happy effect of charming 5-year-old Malayla. It’s another training day at the office for Pella, a Labrador-Golden Retriever mix. Malayla and the other children we met this day were volunteers helping in Pella’s work.

“She just brings a smile to people’s faces just seeing her,” Amber Urban said. 

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  Pella’s job was created by Urban when she was at a local police department. Now, she’s a criminal investigator at the Arapahoe County, Colorado, district attorney’s office. You could call them partners.
 
They take on the toughest cases when a child has been hurt or sexually abused or seen a horrible crime. It often starts with the investigation when a child may be too traumatized to talk.
 
“Then you bring Pella into the room and what happens?” Petersen asked.

“They just want to talk about Pella and they interact with you because if Pella thinks you’re okay, then you must be okay,” Urban said.
 
Then they feel safe enough to tell their stories.
 
She’s played a role in 450 cases since she began her career with Urban, being there for a child right in the courtroom. This kind of training keeps Pella’s skills sharp. Pella must stay out of sight in the witness stand. Her gift to a frightened child who must testify is her very presence.


 
“The intimidation factor, the fear, the coldness of the room -- Pella helps eliminate all of that,” said Cara Morlan, a senior deputy district attorney who calls Pella a huge asset to a prosecutor. “Because to have a witness who is willing to talk makes the jury hear their story and the focus is on them versus the focus being on me and questions and it looks like I have to draw it out of them.”
 
Pella stays out of sight on purpose. Jurors never know she is there so they will focus on the testimony, not the dog.
 
Abby helped us understand the child’s view when the defendant can be sitting only a few feet away.
 
“Do you think it helps to have Pella here for protection or a little comfort?” Petersen asked her.

“Yeah, I think it would help because I’d probably be afraid of that person … and she’d be there to help me relax and calm and not feel so scared,” Abby said.

Pella has company. There are 126 courthouse dogs in 34 states, plus the District of Columbia. But really, it’s not as easy as just getting a well-trained dog. It’s Pella and the unconditional love that children sense instantly.

“She loves kids. The minute she hears or sees that there is a child around, I see her look for them,” Urban said. “That’s really important for her to be very focused on them.”

“She’s a pretty special dog,” Petersen said.

“She is a special dog. They just love her and she responds to them,” Urban said.
 
That’s what makes her Pella, the most loveable crime fighter around.