A pawsitive impact: State's Attorney's Office employs therapy dog

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BENNINGTON — The Bennington County State's Attorney Office has welcomed an important new member to their team: a team member who's the first of his kind.

In addition to helping victims and witnesses feel more at ease, Max is friendly, loyal, calm, non-judgmental, and fluffy.

Max is a Golden Doodle who just recently passed the Vermont sanctioned test for therapy dog certification, becoming the first official therapy dog in a Vermont State's Attorney's office. Already, other offices throughout the state are looking to follow suit, said Max's owner, Whitney Kalinowski.

Kalinowski is a victim advocate at the State's Attorney Office and pays entirely for Max's care, maintenance, and training. Max was born April 22, 2017 and was put to work at the office about two months later. While learning the ropes at the office, Max completed obedience training, advanced training, and most recently his therapy dog certification.

Now, Max has a busy schedule. When Kalinowski is at work, Max is too. Throughout the day, he may comfort domestic violence victims in the courthouse, serve as a welcome distraction for a child caught in a custody battle, or even visit other places like Bennington Health and Rehab or a nursing home.

Bennington County State's Attorney Erica Marthage says she considered the possibility of adding a furry employee to the office ever since Kalinowski began working there in 2016.

"Whitney's dad was a longtime K-9 handler with the Vermont State Police," Marthage said. "She grew up with a service dog and understands the role of a working dog. She loves dogs and is committed to her role as a victim advocate, so it was a natural fit."

Marthage researched the varying levels of involvement therapy dogs can offer within the criminal justice department. While Max offers support outside the courtroom for now, she hopes for him to eventually be allowed to accompany a victim into a trial.

"My hope is that, if there is a case at some point where the victim has a particular attachment to him and he has a good relaxing impact on the victim, that he would come into the courtroom," Marthage said

Many defense attorneys automatically object to a dog being in the courtroom because they claim it could distract the jury.

However, in Bennington courtrooms, the witness box is "literally a box" and Max could easily sit at the victim's feet and not be noticed, Marthage said.

"He's not really a distraction," Kalinowski said. "You won't really know he's there unless you see him."

Both Kalinowski and Marthage say Max has been a positive addition to the office because of the way he makes people feel more at ease.

"Not only has it made conversation easier, it's definitely a distraction," Kalinowski said.

For a victim having to recount a traumatic experience or a witness recalling details of a crime, therapy dogs are a way to make the conversation happen more easily. Kalinowski says Max often acts as a conversation starter; the victim will begin talking about how they love dogs or even talk about dogs they've owned in the past.

"Then it slowly eases back into the conversation it needs to," Kalinwoski added. "There's definitely been a couple times where people have come in, very upset and distraught about what they're going through."

She recalled a domestic violence victim who came in, visibly in distress. As the victim sat on the couch in the State's Attorney office, Max came over and sat next to her, allowing her to stroke his head. As she pet him, she began to open up about her experience and her grief increased. Max sensed this.

"She was crying pretty hard, I would say almost hysterical, and he just puts his head in her lap and it helped her take a step back," Kalinowski said.

This non-human interaction can help victims in a multitude of ways.

"[Therapy dogs] have no judgement about whatever you're going through," Marthage said. "They're not looking to get anything out of it."

Kalinowski also believes the sensory aspect of a therapy dog is another benefit. Since Max is so soft with springy curls, Kalinowski notices plenty of people playing with his fur, which also helps ease them into conversation.

Through Therapy Dogs of Vermont, groups in need of a therapy dog visit can connect with local owners and request a visit. Kalinowski plans on bringing Max to Bennington Health and Rehab "a couple times a week" and also plans to continue bringing him to a local bingo night.

Kalinowski says she would also like to look into bringing Max to local colleges during midterms and finals to help ease the stress of students, and even bringing him to schools or libraries to sit by children as they learn to read.

"I am thrilled to have such a wonderful asset in our office," Marthage said. "He has already earned his place here."

Christie Wisniewski can be reached at cwisniewski@benningtonbanner.com and at 802-447-7567, ext. 111.


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