Therapy dogs comfort child victims at the Tulsa County Courthouse.
Boo was Tulsa’s first court therapy dog, a post he has held since September 2010. The Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office now has six therapy dogs to support children in the courtroom.
Boo doesn’t know it, but he’s a hero.
The 17-pound Bichon Frise is one of six therapy dogs in the Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office Special Dog Unit. Since 2011, the dogs have befriended children who must appear in court to talk about crimes they’ve witnessed or experienced.
Leon Mullis, Boo’s owner, says his “live teddy bear” was accompanying a young girl to a preliminary hearing when she saw her perpetrator through the narrow glass windows of the courtroom door. The girl froze and announced, “I can’t do this.” She eventually scooped up Boo and carried him into the courtroom.
“On the way out after her testimony, she looked down at Boo and said, ‘Boo, I couldn’t have done it without you,’” Mullis says.
The therapy dog program began when Susan Witt, who handles communication and community outreach for the district attorney’s office, read and shared an article about therapy dogs helping victims of abuse.
“When I first read that article, the thought hit me: This is the answer to child abuse,” says Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler.
In September 2010, Boo became the first court therapy dog in Tulsa when he sat with three girls as they testified against a man
accused of sexually assaulting them.
“I have seen where kids are upset — tapping a toe, or moving their legs, or maybe a tear will fall — and I have seen those dogs react and move closer to the child,” Kunzweiler says. “I don’t know how they know to see that, but they see it.”
The therapy dog is simply a silent friend who doesn’t give advice, doesn’t judge.
Kunzweiler calls the program “a miracle of God” and says the dogs provide comfort and also typically shorten the amount of time children spend in court.
“What used to take me about 30 minutes to get a kid to talk about themselves and private parts on their body, now, with a therapy dog, that kid will probably start talking within about 10 minutes,” he says. “What used to take maybe an hour to an hour and a half of testimony on the stand now takes about a half hour.”
Amazed at how the program was working, Kunzweiler wanted to ensure other children in Oklahoma have the same opportunity.
Thanks to the work of Kunzweiler and others, a law was established in November 2014. It confirms that any child younger than 13 who has a relationship with a certified therapeutic dog and is called to testify in a criminal proceeding, is guaranteed the right to have the dog present in lieu of a support person.
“I have said many times that aside from marrying my wife and having children, I could die a happy man by getting this program instituted in Tulsa and the state of Oklahoma,” Kunzweiler says. “It has the potential to permanently change how traumatized victims are treated in the courtroom.”
Kunzweiler says he hopes that, in the future, therapy dogs will be available to other trauma victims who aren’t children.
Each court therapy dog has completed obedience training as well as a therapy dog exam. It also is certified as an AKC Canine Good Citizen and registered as a therapy dog team with its owner.
Zack, an English springer spaniel, and his handler, Peggy Striegel, also volunteer in the special dog unit. Zack makes it his job to say hello to everyone at the courthouse.
“He’s not only providing therapy for the child, he’s providing therapy for the whole family unit,” Striegel says. “They’re all getting just a little distraction from this horrific thing they’re facing.”
Boo and his furry friends don’t have capes or super powers, but they’re saving the day one case at a time.