When it comes to the ruff and tumble of the courtroom, nine-year-old Louie has it sorted. The black Labrador is New Zealand’s only “courthouse dog”, comforting traumatised sexual abuse victims and providing court staff with much-needed light relief.
Louie’s introduction to court came 18 months ago, when his owner, Tauranga District Court victims’ advisor Gail Bryce, was helping with a sexual violence trial in which two young girls were set to testify.
“They came through and they were absolutely distraught,” recalls Gail, 58. “I knew they wouldn’t be able to cope come trial day, so I rang the detective to say, ‘Find out if they like dogs.’ They did, so I took Louie in.”
His calming presence had an immediate effect. The girls, distracted by feeding and walking their charming new friend, relaxed and were able to relive their traumatic experience with few problems. From then on, Louie became a fixture at court.
When not working, the much-loved family pet enjoys lounging on the couch or playing with Gail’s other two dogs, short-haired German pointer Poppy and her brother Inca.
“They actually get a bit jealous when they see Louie going off with me in the morning,” laughs Gail.
Crown prosecutors and detectives now carry a photo of Louie so young victims can see who they’ll be meeting when they arrive at court.
“They give evidence via CCTV from another room in court and Louie will sit at their feet or have his head on their lap,” tells Gail.
“It reinforces that they’re in a safe place. You’ll often hear the judge tell the jury not to be alarmed if they see the head of a dog appear on the screen.”
At 42kg, Louie is big for his breed, but he’s placid, and his previous experience visiting rest-home residents and sick children makes him perfect for the role, tells Gail.
“He’s a big bear. We had one trial where a girl had been bitten by a dog when she was younger, so she was very apprehensive, but within an hour, she was cuddled up to Louie on the floor. It really is wonderful to see.”
As well as his young charges, unexpectedly, the lovable Lab now also has court staff wrapped around his big paw, with one employee keeping dog biscuits in her handbag especially for him.
Gail smiles, “It’s a very stressful environment with a lot of pressure and very difficult cases, so to have Louie there is nice for them as well. Actually, when I walk into the court, no-one says hello to me – just to Louie!”