County prosecutors office welcomes 4-legged employee

When a brutal molestation case was going to trial, the victims were hesitant to talk with prosecutors, and didn’t want to speak to a courtroom of people about what happened.

But their testimony was essential to getting a conviction in the case, Johnson County Prosecutor Brad Cooper said.

“They didn’t want to testify,” Cooper said. “They were closed off. They had been brutally abused and molested.”

That’s when prosecutors decided to bring in a service dog specifically trained to provide comfort to people in stressful situations, Cooper said.

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“Kids like animals. It came over to them, and the girls started to laugh. I kid you not, that animal is the sole reason that case went to trial,” he said.

The dog provided comfort to the victim during interviews and testimony in court, leading to a conviction and a 45-year sentence in the case. That wouldn’t have happened without the service dog, Cooper said.

That case made Cooper see how valuable having a service dog would be to his office, he said. Since last year, the prosecutor’s office has been working to get a grant for its own service dog. The dog cost more than $1,000 through the Indiana Canine Assistance Network, half of which Cooper said he paid himself.

Last month, Nanook, a 2-year-old Labrador and Golden Retriever mix, arrived at the Johnson County Prosecutor’s Office and has already been a tremendous help in one case, Cooper said. Johnson County is one of only a handful of Indiana counties with its own service dog embedded in its court system. If the experience works out, Cooper said he wouldn’t be surprised to see the practice spread elsewhere in the state.

Most recently, Nanook stood by the side of an elderly robbery victim during video-taped testimony, he said.

“Before we got into anything about the case, we had a four to five minute conversation about dogs,” Cooper said. “It is something that everybody is familiar with and everyone can relate to.”

Whenever a local law enforcement agency or the Indiana Department of Child Services needs to conduct an interview at the child advocacy center housed at the prosecutor’s office, Nanook will be available to calm and comfort a victim who has likely endured a horrific crime, Cooper said. While the dog is intended primarily for cases with child victims, Nanook is available for adults as well, he said.

Deputy Prosecutor Ryan Bland, who is Nanook’s handler, spent a couple weeks working with Nanook at the Indiana Woman’s Prison, where the dog was trained. He also takes care of Nanook overnight and during the weekends. He described Nanook as a perfectly behaved dog at and away from the office.

Nanook will need about six to eight months of additional training and adjusting to his new environment before he works with children full time, Bland said.

Employees have been bringing their children to the office to give Nanook people to practice with, he said.

Nanook was originally trained as a guide dog, but his blind handler ended up having allergies and couldn’t keep him. So Nanook went through training again to be used as a service dog to comfort people going through stressful situations. More training is still needed to ensure he approaches children the right way, by walking up to them slowly and calmly, Bland said.

Once that training is complete, Nanook will likely meet with victims at the child advocacy center nearly every day of the week, he said.

Food, veterinarian visits and other costs of caring for a dog will come from the prosecutor’s office annual budget, Cooper said.

Taking care of Nanook, such as going out on walks, is a shared responsibility at the office and is one people have been lining up and waiting for, Cooper said.