ORLANDO, Fla. — When children become victims of abuse and are called to testify in court, it can often be a traumatic experience. But the Orange County K-9th Circuit Program is matching therapy dogs with those children for when they are on the witness stand.
The 5-year-old boxer helps children who must testify in court. Karl was born deaf, so loud sounds don’t bother him or make him bark. Children like having Karl with them as he’s hidden underneath the stand.
Karl the therapy dog is a 5-year-old boxer providing companionship and courage in the courthouse.
Most will never see the leash tightly wound around a brave child’s hand.
Before a jury is seated the child walks through the courtroom doors, but he is not alone. Right by his side is Karl the boxer, in a floppy blue hat.
“It makes people smile,” Karl’s owner and trainer Joanne Hart-Rittenhouse said about the hat.
Karl lies down behind the witness stand, hidden from view. Children who sit there have been through tough times; often abused, neglected or have witnessed much worse.
“Most of them won’t testify, won’t go through a deposition, if they don’t have a dog beside them,” Hart-Rittenhouse said.
They must sit in front of strangers in a strange and scary place, facing the person who hurt them, telling these strangers a painful and private story.
“One of the questions a child had asked me, the person who had hurt her that was in the courtroom with her, “‘If he comes over and tries to hurt me, will Karl protect me?'”
The white boxer weighs 65 pounds, often the same size or bigger than the children he comforts.
“I doubt very much that he would do anything,” she said. “But if that’s what made the child feel better, then absolutely, he’s going to protect you.”
Karl was also born deaf, which complements his calm and quiet nature.
“He doesn’t hear all the noise,” she said. “So he’s not going to react to yelling, banging, all the other things that can happen during a case.”
During a trial, difficult questions are asked, voices are raised and people can get angry. While this anxiety builds, the child grips the leash and can rub their feet along Karl’s soft fur — making the moment a little easier, knowing that their friend is there.
“Facing the person who hurt you — it’s scary,” Hart-Rittenhouse said.
Karl’s presence summons the courage for these children to face that microphone and speak.
“It makes me feel really good that we can do this and help,” she said.
Karl’s owner stays in the courtroom every time he is called to serve. She listens to the testimony that Karl will never hear.
“I always tell everybody, wait until you get into your car before you cry,” she said.
But the pain doesn’t stop when the judge makes a ruling.
“We’ll be there as long as the child wants Karl to stay in their life,” Hart-Rittenhouse said. “He’s helped a lot of children.”
Karl is just one of six therapy dogs providing support through the non-profit Companions for Courage that works in courtrooms and hospitals.