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Some California Courts Offer Dogs To Comfort Crime Victims

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Christine Ponelle plays with her dogs Cholla and Puma at Bernal Heights Park (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Christine Ponelle plays with her dogs Cholla and Puma at Bernal Heights Park (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

SACRAMENTO (CBS 5) — For victims of violent crime, taking the witness stand can be terrifying. Some courts, including those in the Bay Area, are now offering support from four-legged friends.

Getting into a courthouse in California means going through security, even if you’re a poodle named Reggie.

Canine companions can offer comfort to sex assault and domestic abuse victims as they face their abusers in a courtroom. In California alone – Marin, Sacramento and San Diego counties have adopted dogs into their justice systems. Nationwide, they can be found in jurisdictions in ten other states.

Victim advocates believe the dogs can be very effective.

“He’ll just be minding his own business, and someone will start crying, or be upset, and he’ll go up and press his body up against them. And he’ll lean on them so it seems like he does know,” said Reggie’s handler Marcia Christian.

Reggie usually sits in the audience with the victims. While it’s rare, he has been on the witness stand.

“I think for a lot of people it’s horrifying. You know, when we talk to people beforehand and try to prepare them emotionally to come and face their abusers, some people are horribly scared and frightened,” said Christian.

For the Wilcox family of Sacramento, Reggie was a big help. Michael Wilcox still remembers the night of an attack which sent Minh Dang to prison for 25-years-to-life.

For Wilcox, facing his attacker in court was as traumatic as the attack itself. But having Reggie by his side made the situation much easier.

“We had Reggie! I swear I thought I was going to rub him bald I pet him so much. That was just so soothing,” said Michael Wilcox.

But, some defense attorneys believe dogs have no place in the courtroom.

“I think the danger there is the dog would convey loyalty and friendship and openness and innocence, so that this is not the sort of person who would be lying to you,” said criminal defense attorney Ted Cassman.

In New York, a defendant has appealed a rape conviction after Rosie, a golden retriever, accompanied the 15-year-old victim onto the witness stand.

For now, Reggie still has approval from the District Attorney, and he will keep his day job.

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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