'I couldn't have done this without Karl,' woman says about court dog therapy program

Companions for Courage helps children, adults with disabilities

By Melodi Smith - Multimedia Journalist

Karl and his friends from Companions for Courage are four-legged gentle giants called in to assist during what can be a scary time for children under the age of 16 and adults with mental disabilities.

Karl is a registered therapy dog that provides comfort and support during courtroom proceedings, which was invaluable to a woman who we will call Anne.

“She confided in me that something really bad was happening to her,” Lucy said.

Anne confided in her friend Lucy that she was facing abuse.

Lucy took Anne to the police, and after an interview with them, they determined there was a crime committed and that Anne’s case would go through the court process.

With Anne’s mental disability, Lucy knew that she would need to get her help because it is difficult for her to understand situations like the one she was going through.

"I knew that I needed something that could support her, and so I started looking Googling and I was trying to find something," Lucy told News 6.

“I didn't know about any  service like this, but my friend gave me a newspaper article."

The newspaper article was about the work Companions for Courage was doing with the Lake County Courthouse.

The organization works in Lake, Orange, Sumter and Osceola Counties, providing their services that can be requested by lawyers, counselors, law enforcement, the Department of Children and Families, or judicial agencies.

After reaching out to the courthouse, Lucy was connected to Companions for Courage board member Joanne Hart-Rittenhouse.

“I got a phone call from the orange county prosecutors office  telling me that there were a trial and a dog to assist her,” Hart-Rittenhouse said.

Karl and Anne met several times before the first deposition and started to develop a bond.

That bond is something that the organization says is important.

In the times between their meetings, text messages and photos of Karl to Anne helped strengthen their developing bond.

“Well, throughout the time period, we didn't see Karl, she (Joanne) would text Anne pictures. And things like that to say ‘Hey, Karl, says,’ or ‘Karl misses you.’ It was really sweet, you know, keeping in touch with Anne,” Lucy said.

The bond of communication and meetings helped when it was time for Anne to recount what happened to her in court for her first deposition.

It was a day that Lucy said was hard, because it was difficult to get Anne in the car to go to the courthouse.

“Well, since the incident, she had a lot of bad flashbacks and trauma, and so when she knew had to go that day she was -- it was terrible.. Crying, screaming..., I had to really coax her out of the car because she wasn't going.  She just didn't want to go,” Lucy said.

Anne met Karl before her testimony in the courtyard, and he was with her from that point until after she got off the witness stand.

“That empowered her to walk up those steps and walk in front of all those strangers, go right up through the elevator and walk in to testify," Hart-Rittenhouse said.

At the request of the defense attorney in Anne’s case, the jury did not know that Karl or Hart-Rittenhouse were on the witness stand with her, but she was reassured that he was there the whole time.

“Karl and I hid on the floor behind Anne. Anne wasn't allowed to reach down and touch Karl because they didn't want the jury to see what was going on, so she kicked off her shoes so she could run her feet through Karl’s fur," Hart-Rittenhouse said.

Because Anne knew Karl was there, she was able to continue her difficult testimony.

Karl’s and his fellow friend’s nature is so important when they can be on the stand for hours at a time.

Hart-Rittenhouse told News 6 that he is not a barker and is a calm dog, one who can fall asleep during the trial.
Karl, who is deaf, also knows over 100 signs in American Sign Language.

Founding of Companions for Courage

The organization was founded in 2012 after a motion was passed in the Florida legislature to allow therapy dogs to assist in judicial proceedings.

All of the dogs are registered therapy dogs and have been active therapy dogs for at least two years, Hart-Rittenhouse said.

Each dog handler is a volunteer who provides the free service when they are called upon for a case.

However, the handlers are not therapists, and the organization likes the child to pick the companion to help them through this process, and for as long as the child needs the dog and for additional therapy.

‘Now they have a friend’

The organization has been working in the Orange County court system for several years.

With the partnership between Orange County and the division, it has proven to be something that Judge Thomas Turner envisioned and has seen time and time again.

"The child feels like they have a friend there because they are in these situations and they don't know the people they are talking to, but now they have a friend. That's their friend,” Turner told News 6.

‘I couldn’t have done this without Karl’

With the help of the dogs, children and adults are able to get through their difficult testimony.

“Just walking into the courtroom is intimidating, but walking into a courthouse is intimidating. Anyone who has ever had to go to jury duty, you know how intimidated you feel, well, imagine now a child having to go and testify in front of the person who hurt her,” Hart-Rittenhouse said.

The bond that Karl has developed with Anne through accompanying her to her court proceedings has helped her in many ways, and Anne owes her confidence in testifying to him.

“She told me that she couldn’t do it without Karl,” Lucy said.

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