One of the newest members of the 8th Judicial District Attorney’s Office in Fort Collins is helping out the office in a unique way, by using his early-life training to provide emotional support to victims and witnesses.
Zion VII, an almost 2-year-old Labrador, now serves as the office’s facility dog, trained to provide emotional support for victims, witnesses and family members involved in cases, according to a press release from the office.
“The criminal justice system can be a really confusing, long and daunting place for victims to try and navigate; sometimes cases go on for a year or more,” said Kate Perrill, victim witness division manager and Zion’s primary handler. “There is a lot of work that the victims witness unit and the office as a whole does in helping support those victims through the whole process. And Zion is a tool to assist us in doing that.”
She said Zion can be used as a “calm, safe, reassuring, supportive resource,” in meetings to help people feel comfortable and safe to talk about events and incidents that are oftentimes deeply traumatic.
Along with his gentle eyes and regal demeanor, Zion’s suite of commands include several which provide some emotional closeness to people. When commanded with “visit,” Zion will place his head on a person’s lap; by telling him “lap,” he puts his front paws and chest on a person, resting in their lap.
“His main job is to be that calm anchor when victims are talking about really difficult things, sometimes multiple times,” Perrill said.
Zion was acquired by the office through Canine Companions, a national organization that provides service dogs to adults, children and veterans with disabilities as well as facility dogs like Zion to professionals working in healthcare, criminal justice and educational settings, according to the group’s website.
The group, since 1975, has bred, raised and trained service and facility dogs in more than 40 commands designed to help people with disabilities or to “motivate and inspire clients with special needs,” according to the DA’s release. Zion was selected to work in a court facility, the release added, because of his calm demeanor “necessary in a criminal justice setting.”
Perrill said she had the desire to get a facility dog for around three years, but the process really picked up when District Attorney Gordon McLaughlin was elected and she brought the idea to him.
She said the DA’s office applied through the southwest region of the organization based in Oceanside, California. After training, Zion graduated Oct. 7 and joined the DA’s Office.
While the estimated cost for a facility dog like Zion, including follow-up support, can be $50,000, according to the DA’s release, facility dogs are provided through Canine Companions at no cost.
And while he has been with the local office for only around a month and a half, Zion has already been in on multiple meetings. He has even gotten to know the other people working in the DA’s office.
“Any meeting that Zion is in is a better meeting,” Perrill said.
While they work with Zion in meetings, they also are hoping to get him acclimated to being in the courtroom, with the ultimate goal of using him as a calming force during witness testimony, Perrill said.
As Zion gets used to his new job and new surroundings, Perrill and others at the DA’s Office anticipate he will be a significant force of good in the work they do.
“His impact is going to be huge with people that have to go through this system,” said Ashley Rogers, complex case coordinator for the office and a secondary handler for Zion. “It is not an easy system to go through, it is long and it is hard and I think having him here to benefit those people as they go through that process is going to make a huge impact.”
McLaughlin said their office often meets with people on very difficult days to discuss very difficult topics, and having Zion around to help work with victims and work on the DA’s prosecutions is a great asset.
He said that having everything possible to “mitigate some of (the) trauma” that victims, witnesses or their families deal with is an important part in prosecuting cases.
“The trauma involved in crime can really go well beyond a specific victim,” McLaughlin said. “To have Zion here to support the folks our office is working with throughout the community I think will be really beneficial.”
Perrill said the goal of those in the DA’s Office is to help victims of crime and provide justice; Zion, she said, will be an important part of that.
“Zion can be beneficial in that and helping victims get to the point where they are better able to talk about things that have happened to them, mitigate the impacts of the stress of just being in the criminal justice system and just being a supportive resource both to the people he interacts with … and the office as a whole,” she said.