This week we celebrated International Dog Day, and to celebrate we spoke with 2018 Churchill Fellow Julie Morrison about her work with our furry friends.
You helped instigate the court dog program at the OPP, can you please tell us a little bit about that?
The Office of Public Prosecutions Victoria (OPP) has established a Court Dog Program using professionally trained dogs to provide comfort and emotional support to people in the justice system. Participating in a courtroom or other legal proceedings is one of the most stressful events that people can experience. Studies show the use of an appropriately trained dog can significantly reduce the stress in these experiences thereby improving the efficiency and quality of the legal process. We believe our Court Dog Program is a positive step in making the court system more trauma sensitive to victims and witnesses.
What inspired you to get into this kind of work?
I have been actively involved with dogs for the last 20 years. I compete in dog events, I am obedience judge and have also worked with my dogs in hospitals and schools. I have seen first-hand the effects dogs can have on people. In my first year at working at the OPP, I began to wonder if there was a role for dogs in helping to reduce the anxiety of victims through the legal process. I was very fortunate to have a very supporting Senior Management team who let me have a 12 week pilot program, the first of its kind in Australia.
Can you put into perspective the influence this work has?
Scientific studies show that engaging with a dog increases the level of dopamine in the body. This helps to reduce the level of cortisol which is the hormone associated with stress eg increased heart rate, blood pressure, sweaty palms etc. So people ‘feel’ better and are more relaxed. I see this every day when Lucy our dog is supporting someone. Victims will often say to me “just having her with me has helped me to relax”. The dog is helping the victim to get through the process with reduced levels of stress on the body.
The reduction in the level of stress also has another important effect for the legal process. Science has shown us that when people’s levels of stress are reduced, they are better able to recall fact and think clearly. This is of critical importance in the fact- finding process which is the core of the justice system. I have received a lot of feedback from solicitors telling me how surprised they were that their vulnerable victim did “so well” answering questions and how quickly they got through the evidence when Lucy was with them. Less time in court is also a positive side effect.
There is another way which Lucy helps that we cannot measure but we know has an influence on the justice system. Many victims tell us that knowing they had the support of Lucy was the reason they were able to come to court. If these witnesses did not attend court and present their evidence, the outcome of the cases could have considerably different.
Over 200 victims and witnesses (children and adults) have been supported by our dog in a court matter.
What are some stand out moments or things you learned on your Fellowship?
I started my Fellowship wanting to learn more about how dogs provide support in the courtroom. I learnt of 24 different ways that dogs in the USA and Canada were providing support across the whole of the justice process, not just in the courtroom. One particularly poignant one is providing support to victims of mass shootings. Sadly I was told “mass shootings are not of matter of IF but WHEN”.
I was completely blown away by the generosity of the people I met. They welcomed me into their workplaces, homes and families. I have no doubt that the influence and prestige of the Churchill Fellowship set me up for the success of my trip.
On the last day of my Fellowship I was working with a handler and her dog at Morgan County Court in Alabama. To my great surprise I was presented with a Resolution from the Alabama District Attorney’s Association in recognition of the work that I do in supporting victims of crime. It also made mention of my Churchill Fellowship. I finished my Fellowship in tears but they were of the happiest kind!
What are you working towards now?
Introducing a second dog to our program. It is very exciting but it has unfortunately been delayed by Covid 19. I am also working towards being able to provide more support to victims in regional Victoria. I have also been providing support to agencies in other State jurisdictions to establish a program.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
I have lots of quotes from victims that Lucy has supported and I would like to share this one;
Lucy is Majestic and has helped me cope with 3 years of suffering. She has made it so much easier. Lucy has even helped me with the mental health effects of COVID 19. Simply by having a picture of her gives me so much encouragement. I am so thankful to have Lucy’s Support and feel she is the key to get me through the final stages of my trial. I am so proud to have a loyal friend like Lucy.
Is there any question I should have asked you, but did not?
I would like to mention (as it is International Dog Day!), a big shout out to the dogs at Assistance Dogs of Australia who are undertaking their training at Gatton Correctional Facility in Queensland. Lucy completed her training here with one of the prisoners (who is also training our next dog). It is an inspiring story of restorative justice when prisoners are training dogs to become court dogs and help victims of crime.
Thank you Julie.
For more information you can read Julie’s report here.