River Bridge child advocates get a furry pro to kids help in tough settings

River Bridge Regional Center's new "facility dog

River Bridge Regional Center, a child advocacy nonprofit for child victims of abuse, has a highly trained yet furry addition to its workforce.

For the past few months Frasier, a 2-year-old Labrador-golden retriever mix, has been lending his fur and friendly nature to child victims during their most vulnerable moments.

Frasier has been helping with therapy sessions, forensic interviews and a couple of trials that required testimony from child victims. During these times, the dog is a calming presence that helps these children open up about their experiences.

But that effect isn’t achieved simply because Frasier is cuddly and adorable. The success of a facility dog like Frasier depends on a little social engineering.

For thousands of years humans have evolved with dogs as their companions, said Meghan Backofen, a mental health therapist at River Bridge and Frasier’s new handler.

“When we were living in caves, these are the animals we had with us,” Backofen said. “Since we’ve been with dogs so long, we know, maybe even subconsciously, that if we’re with a dog he’s going to alert us to danger.”

So the inverse is true. The theory is that being around a calm dog makes you instinctively calmer because you know the dog is watching out for you.

“When you’re in the presence of a calm dog, you’re being told there’s no danger.”

This allows the victims coming to River Bridge to relax and increases the likelihood they will tell about their traumatic experiences.

“We don’t want the secret to have to continue just because someone’s feeling anxious or discomfort.”

River Bridge is applying this effect to children in one of the most difficult situations of their young lives.

A child coming in for a forensic interview might be very nervous and scared, with their heart racing, said Backofen. They feel anxiety that they’re being asked to talk about something they don’t want anyone to know.

Getting Frasier has been a multiyear process for River Bridge. He came from Canine Companions for Independence, a 40-year-old breeding and training program that trains puppies from birth for two years to assist people with a variety of needs: the wheelchair bound, the hearing impaired, parents of autistic children, hospitals and in Frasier’s case, in a court of law.

All of CCI’s dogs are Labradors mixed with some golden retriever; after decades of breeding and training, breeders have dialed in the traits they’re looking for, said Backofen.

CCI also works through the Courtroom Dogs Foundation, which has placed 105 CCI-trained dogs in courthouses in 31 states.

Soon after Frasier came to River Bridge the 21st Judicial District Attorney’s office got its own courthouse dog for the Mesa County Courthouse.

Backofen is emphatic that Frasier is not a “therapy dog” but a “facility dog.” The difference is years of training.

Just about any even-tempered dog can become a therapy dog with a weekend or two of courses. But Frasier has been trained since birth to be a docile, calming presence for a child having to relive some of the most horrifying experiences of his or her life — sometimes having to testify in the presence of a room full of strangers.

During Frasier’s first six weeks, he and his cohort were trained by being exposed to sounds and touch that would make them accustomed to the courtroom and other environments in which they’d eventually work. They were constantly being exposed to recordings of sounds from fire engines, doorbells, gavels and other commotion in the courtroom and other service areas.

Then each dog went to a puppy raiser for the next 1½ years. During that time Fraiser was in constant contact with his puppy raiser. Whether it was a trip to the grocery store or to the office, he would go everywhere the puppy trainer went and was constantly being trained and socialized.

Frasier went to a puppy raiser in Castle Rock, so he’s been a Colorado boy from the start, Backofen noted.

After that came six months of intense training at CCI’s central campus. Alongside 30 other dogs in the training group, Frasier learned more than 40 commands that make him a full-service dog.

Frasier is Harvard quality, whereas therapy dogs have only gotten their GED, said Backofen.

River Bridge also went this route because of judicial scrutiny against letting dogs in the courtroom. Though many dog owners have grown accustomed to businesses and public spaces that don’t mind their dogs tagging along, the court is not going to set the precedent of letting just anyone with a therapy dog bring their pet into the courtroom.

Defense attorneys have argued against the use of facility dogs in trials, fearing that the dog’s presence sends certain signals to the jury and compromises their objectivity.

In the upcoming murder trial of Arturo Navarrete-Portillo, charged with killing his wife in Carbondale in February 2015, prosecutors want to call the defendant’s 7-year-old son, who they say was a witness to the slaying.

The prosecution is also pushing for Frasier to be used during the young boy’s testimony. But the defense has argued that having an “adorable dog” alongside an “adorable boy” would inevitably prejudice the jury against their client, as Public Defender Molly Owens has said.

To circumnavigate those concerns, River Bridge workers take a number of steps. First, they attempt to keep the jury from ever seeing Frasier. In a recent Garfield County trial they placed the dog with the testifying child in the witness box before the jury filed in. A bailiff was positioned to further block the jury’s view of Frasier.

Thus, they hope to keep jurists from even knowing the dog is present. Backofen also said River Bridge would make Frasier available to any of the defense’s child witnesses to remain unbiased in the case.

CCI also doesn’t charge River Bridge for Frasier, who’s valued at $55,000, and CCI didn’t charge for the two weeks of handler training Backofen had to complete in San Diego.

The organization also insures Frasier for about $1 million, so in the unlikely case that he bit someone, the liability would not fall to River Bridge, said Backofen.

Private donors have also covered his veterinary and grooming bills since he came on board last fall. So far Frasier hasn’t cost the county any taxpayer money, said Backofen.

Technically, CCI owns Frasier and will continue to own him throughout his working life. But when it’s time for him to retire, Backofen will get the chance to adopt him.


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