In Akron, the 'Chief Cuddle Officer' holds court
Interacting with the legal system can be stressful for any adult — including concerns they won't get a fair shake. But for kids, testifying, or listening to testimony, can be traumatizing. At the Summit County Juvenile Court, they’ve found a way to reduce stress levels both for children and for staff members.
Tater Tot is a professional therapy dog, and his human is Geoff Auerbach, a Guardian ad Litem with the Summit County Juvenile Court. His job is to speak for abused or neglected children during court cases.
"Tater Tot does not live in the courtroom. That would be a very dull life," Auerbach said.
The three-and-a-half-year-old Border Collie-Lab mix went through rigorous training to become the first therapy dog at the court.
“He is cautious. He's dubious by nature, but once you kind of crack that shell, he's really open to it," Auerbach said. "And vice versa. I think he is also the chisel that cracks the ice on people who don't quite want to open up or especially are having a really bad day. It just kind of melts them down.”
At the Juvenile Court, that usually means kids who have experienced trauma or abuse. Judge Linda Tucci Teodosio says in only a few weeks, Tater Tot is already helping kids.
“They're here because they've been removed from parents. Or they've been involved in an offense that requires their involvement with the juvenile court," she said. "I've had the pleasure of having Tater Tot sit in on an in-camera interview, which is my opportunity to speak privately with a child involved with the system, and it was good to know that he had that support there.
“When we do the in-camera interviews, the Guardian ad Litem assigned to the child is there with them to provide some support. But there's something about being able to reach down and stroke the head of a dog that gives people -- particularly young people – a feeling of support.”
In Summit County, there's only one other court canine: Avery, who works with the prosecutor’s office. But with the arrival of Tater Tot, Teodosio says several of her colleagues have expressed interest in getting dogs for their courtrooms, too. He’s making a visible difference in many cases, according to Sarah Harvan. She coordinates the volunteers in the Court Appointed Special Advocate program, also known as CASA.
“You can see the facial expression: the exhale, a little bit more comfort, because it's not as intimidating as a face-to-face conversation when you have that neutral, unconditional support from the dog," Harvan said.
The people in the CASA program do essentially the same work as Auerbach, but unpaid — and they can always use more volunteers. Beth Cardina heads the program and says having a therapy dog is making a difference for her staff, too.
“There's a lot of secondary and vicarious trauma associated with this. And we're talking about volunteers who don't necessarily have an office to go back to, to kind of process some of their cases," Harvan said. "So, we're really hoping that, once they have a tough hearing or before a hearing, they can come down to the CASA office and sit in a special area with Tater Tot. He is our ‘Chief Cuddle Officer,’ and [they can] just spend some time relaxing.”
Get on their level
Dr. Kate Eshleman is a child psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic and says animals can be beneficial in many situations.
“They’re very soft. They are willing to give you their undivided attention. It’s easy to establish and maintain trust with an animal, especially for kids who have been in difficult past situations,” Eshleman said.
She says there are a variety of animals that can help those kids.
“In more formal settings, dogs are the most common. But there are different kinds of pet therapy, whether it’s a true therapy pet or an animal that’s providing therapeutic-assisted activities," Eshelman said. "In a less formal setting, there have been plenty of cats. When I was on my internship, there was a therapy pony. But any kind of animal can be therapeutic. It just depends on the person.
“Kids do like to get down on the floor, on the same level as the animal. I think that’s very non-threatening; its not somebody standing above them or over them.”
Training for therapy
The Juvenile Court's "Chief Cuddle Officer" spends most of his day with Auerbach, who became interested in animal-assisted therapy while he was in grad school. So, he got on a waiting list for a dog and eventually was matched with Tater Tot.
"Not everybody is a dog person. That's inevitable. But he's well trained enough that he will not bother you if you don't want to be engaging with a dog,” Auerbach said.
And that training actually includes 56 commands.
“The one I use here most: ‘hug.’ He can hug people, which people just absolutely love. It's great to see," Auerbach said. "But there’s also functional commands. He's a trained service animal so he can pull a wheelchair. He knows direction, left and right. He can open doors. He can turn on lights, if you fall you can say, ‘brace,’ and he'll brace for your weight so you can push yourself up.”
Auerbach and Beth Cardina from CASA like to point out that Tater Tot's training also included some unusual assessments.
Cardina: “He had to pass the ‘Cheeseburger Test,’ which I wouldn't be able to pass.”
Auerbach: “So, he was in a prison in Kansas —Ellsworth Correctional Facility—for a year-and-a-half learning to get used to outdoor sounds, trucks, trains, things like that. I flew out to Kansas, spent a week learning how to use him, and part of the test was we had to go into the mall in Salina, Kansas, and leave him in the food court. We had to walk away and then somebody walked by and dropped a hot cheeseburger on the floor, in his face. And he couldn't move to get it. [We] both said we’re not sure we could do that. [With] the 10-second rule, I would be all over that.”
Bhatia: “By the way, is he secretly also a drug-sniffing dog?”
“I’ve said that a couple times. He is not!” Auerbach said.
Tater Tot and his humans are hoping to show off his therapeutic skills and encourage the broader use of court therapy dogs when they make a presentation at the national CASA conference in September.
You can follow Tater Tot on Instagram @thehonorabletatertot.