Mabel the golden retriever is no stranger to the justice system. In her early months, she spent half a year in jail being trained through the Puppies in Prison programme.
While she didn't quite make the cut as a mobility dog, in a full circle moment, she's found her calling as New Zealand's second ever court dog supporting children during trial instead.
"She lived in Auckland Women's and Spring Hill prison for three months each," explains owner Gail Bryce. "I love that an offender has been part of her training and now she's come back to support victims of crime".
The Puppies in Prison programme, which was featured on popular TV series Dog Squad Puppy School, sees the Department of Corrections and Mobility Dogs NZ partner in a successful initiative where prisoners are responsible for training the specialised assistance dogs.
Gail, who works as a court victim advisor in Tauranga, is a huge supporter of the programme and says she'll be forever grateful it resulted in Mabel joining her family – and the office.
"When Mabel arrives at work, this cry goes up for her," tells Gail. "She stops at everyone's desk along the way, doing the rounds and when I walk through the building, every one stops to say hi. Lawyers, police, security – everyone knows Mabel."
Beaming as she talks about her beloved canine, Gail explains Mabel's job as a court dog is to support children and young people, easing their fears and nerves when they're called to give evidence in court.
"We meet them outside the building and a child is offered to lead Mabel in," says Gail. "Six burley security officers at the door is intimidating for most of us, let alone a child, so they go through with Mabel."
The guards are used to the comforting canine and always make sure to follow protocol, wanding Mabel and asking her the standard security questions, which Gail says normally earns a smile from nervous children.
Mabel is trained to push the button on the lift and lead the child up to the secure witness room, where Gail always has the helpful hound's favourite movie Air Buddies playing.
"As we explain the live link technology, Mabel might sit with her head in the child's lap or they cuddle her on the floor. We surround children with adults at court and the difference a dog makes is incredible because they can still be a kid with a dog.
"She has this sense of where she's needed if someone is sad or upset," says Gail, who has been working with Mabel for three and a half years, but insists she couldn't do it without the support of her fellow court victim advisors. "She just loves children and knows when she meets a child outside the court, that's her job."
Her late beloved black Labrador Louie was the first dog in the country to hold the role before sadly passing away from cancer.
Gail, who came from a background of aviation and sales management before becoming a Victim Support volunteer and eventually taking the victim advisor job at Tauranga Court seven years ago, was inspired to have the first court dogs in Aotearoa after hearing of success with similar programmes internationally.
So far, feedback from the Crown Prosecutor and Police has been unanimously positive and another dog is being trained for Auckland's Waitākere Court.
"They're big supporters because they see the difference it makes," enthuses Gail. "Our goal is to enable the child to give their best evidence. If we can keep them calmer and get them through smoothly, it's better for the court and child – and Mabel definitely contributes to that."
Reflecting on how effective Mabel is, Gail tells the story of a young girl who froze and refused to speak during trial.
"Beforehand, she was very talkative, but when it came time for the CCTV link to go live and the child to talk to the Police prosecutor, she wouldn't say a word. Then he asked, 'Is Mabel nibbling your toes?'
"She smiled and replied, 'No, Mabel wouldn't do that,' and the ice was broken and we were away."
Gail is quick to add, while Mabel is invaluable, she's just one of many services offered including social workers and communications assistants.
The talented dog was also recently recognised as a finalist for Frog Recruitment's NZ's Top Dog With A Job competition, which was started eight years ago to encourage the mental health benefits of having dogs in the workplace.
Having witnessed the impact first-hand, Gail was thrilled to have Mabel celebrated through the nationwide competition. And while Mabel can't put it into words herself, Gail speaks for them both when she says how gratifying their work is.
"It's very fulfilling to help someone through one of the most difficult times of their lives," she smiles.
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