Brevard County sheriff's uses Primus the Puggle to comfort young abuse victims

Program started as agent's UCF master's degree project

ROCKLEDGE, Fla. – A two-year-old Brevard County Sheriff's Office puggle is helping possible victims of abuse or witnesses to crimes feel comfortable during interviews that pull the children into the criminal justice system.

Primus the pug and beagle mix works from the Brevard County Sheriff's Office criminal investigations division in Rockledge with his handler, Agent Jessie Holton.

"Research is showing that the more rapport and bond you can create with that kid, the more information you get," Holton told Florida Today. "And that's where we use Primus, with his first level of investigative work, and that is warming the kids up before they go into the forensic interview."

The idea of animal-assisted therapy is not a new concept. Child service agencies in North Carolina, for example, use dogs when talking to child victims. There's a similar program in Sarasota. In Palm Beach County, two Labradors are stationed at the courthouse to welcome children for depositions.

But Sheriff Wayne Ivey says this program, officially launched last month, is one-of-a-kind because Holton and Primus can be present for all aspects of a case; from crime scene to courtroom. The office has dubbed the program the "Qualter Project," after former sheriff's Lt. Mike Qualter, a devoted child advocate who died in 2011.

"Our hope is that this will serve as a pilot program for the entire country," the sheriff said. "That other agencies will see the results of it, see the abilities that we have to reach these kids and get evidence against those that have harmed them."

Dr. Mari Bennett, a licensed clinical psychologist who teaches child advocacy courses at Florida Institute of Technology, said Primus could be a valuable asset for the sheriff's office.

"Immediately on scene it could be very helpful for children to have a way to connect, especially given the chaos that can be surrounding these cases," said Bennett, who is director of the university's Family Learning Program, one of about 15 child sexual abuse treatment programs in Florida.

Chuck Biehl, director of Children's Advocacy Center of Brevard, is keeping his eyes on Primus. He supports the use of the dog on crime scenes, and having the dog in court where children can face stress and trauma of having to testify. But he said the jury is still out on using the dog during forensic interviews.

"There's frequently lots of research being done in many areas that we find ourselves involved with," he said. "These things take time (before) they become part of a standard procedure."

Thirty-six percent of children who are suspected victims disclose abuse to interviewers, Holton said. The Qualter Project has shown promising early results. Holton said in eight cases where investigators had other evidence of abuse and sent in Primus, seven children later disclosed alleged abuse in an interview.

"These kids are talking to complete strangers," Holton said. "They're removed from their environment, they're brought to a strange place and asked to talk to strangers about a very personal event. You can see why they don't disclose. Having Primus there completely flips the (mood) of what's going on."

Holton is a former Marine who was working at Veterans Affairs when he noticed people were going to other programs that used therapy animals. So, Holton launched a project while studying at University of Central Florida and eventually got Primus to work with veterans. Simultaneously, he was promoted to agent with the sheriff's office's special victims unit.

"I immediately started noticing that getting the children to talk was just as difficult as getting some of my veterans to sit down and talk," he said.

It was all the motivation he needed to train Primus to work with kids. Holton spent a week at the National Children's Advocacy Center learning about protocols that helped him design the program in line with current child services practices, and spent about a year in training locally to get Primus certified as a therapy dog.