02 Sep Compassionate Barb makes it easier for children who testify
By Becky Bell
The saying is that a dog is a man’s best friend. But one dog named Barb proves to be a best friend to children who find themselves in a courtroom.
Barb, affectionately known as Courthouse Barb, is a Labrador/golden retriever mix who works to comfort victims at the Faulkner County Prosecutor’s Office in Conway.
For the past five years, Barb has been used by the office to help children who are often worried about testifying against an adult who hurt them, said Susan Bradshaw, Barb’s primary handler.
“When the children testify, she can be at their feet. She has been in six jury trials,” Bradshaw said. “Imagine if you had to be in front of strangers and talk about your most difficult experience. It is such a unrealistic expectation for children. If we can provide them support to get through, then that’s a fantastic idea to help them.”
Bradshaw and Barb’s other handler, Fawn Borden, meet with the children initially and introduce them to the highly trained dog. One of the games Barb plays when she meets the children is Tic Tac Toe. She picks a piece of kibble and continues to pick kibble until someone wins.
“Barb is not strategic; she just takes the closest piece of kibble to her,” Bradshaw said. “We use commands she has learned and turn those into games so kids can be interactive with her.”
When a child is on the witness stand, they are not seen by the jury and neither is Barb, explained Borden. So, if a child becomes nervous during the questions, they can pet her with their feet.
“They take their shoes off and put their feet on her, and they can use their feet to rub along her,” Borden said.
The children are not the only ones who enjoy Barb’s presence at the courthouse, Bradshaw said.
“If the prosecutor had a hard day, if the judge had a hard day, they just come and hang out with Barb a little while. What we didn’t expect was an increase in office morale.”
Barb’s success with everyone she meets in the prosecutor’s office means that the measures that went into getting her there are all worth it, Bradshaw said. In 2014, Bradshaw began emailing other prosecutor’s offices across the state to find out if any of them used a dog for court purposes.
These conversations led her to the Courthouse Dog Foundation based in Bellevue, Wash., and then to Canine Companions, which has training centers in California, Texas, Ohio, New York, and Florida.
Bradshaw and Borden traveled to California for their two–week process of getting trained on everything the dogs had been trained on for their entire life. They had to take a written and practical exam, and then it was time for the agency to pair them with a dog.
“Well, they talk about how they have better results than Match.com,” Bradshaw said. “The dogs are bred in Santa Rosa, Calif. When they are 8 weeks old, they are sent out to volunteer puppy raisers. It’s a very selfless thing.”
Having two handlers is important so that Barb can be used regardless if one handler needs to be in another part of the courthouse that day. Most dogs like Barb work until they are 10 or so, and then they get to go home with their primary handler if he or she wishes. And that’s Bradshaw’s wish.
Barb already sleeps in her bed at night anyway.