Canine Comfort in Court

Alumni Spotlight: Rachel Braden (nee Crawford) BA ’11, BSW ’13, MSW ’14
(image: Alumna Rachel Braden and Merel)

Taking work home every day does not sound like a job perk, unless, of course, that ‘work’ is a black Lab-Bernese Mountain Dog cross named Merel. Rachel Braden (nee Crawford) BA ’11, BSW ’13 MSW ’14, Child Witness Project Coordinator with the London Family Court Clinic, is the primary handler for Ontario’s first courthouse facility dog, and, with this job, Rachel’s work is always with her.

While studying Social Work at King’s, Rachel completed field placements at the London Family Court Clinic (LFCC) where she gained experience with children and families connected to the justice system.

“I started working with young offenders through the LFCC Youth Therapeutic Court,” she recalls. “But it was during my placement with the Child Witness Program that I discovered my true passion.”

As Coordinator and Primary Clinician of the Child Witness Program, Rachel helps prepare and support children and youth under the age of 18 who are facing the challenging task of testifying in court. Preparations can include learning about the court process, meeting with the Crown Attorney, going on courthouse tours, and role playing.

In 2016, Rachel’s team expanded to include Merel, a specially-trained facility dog provided by National Service Dogs. Merel’s job is to be a consistent, calming presence for children/youth during an often inconsistent justice process.

“Merel attends all appointments with me so that she is present throughout the entire process,” says Rachel. “Wherever I am, Merel is.”

With a seemingly simple command from Rachel, "Merel, visit!” the highly-trained dog will go to a child witness and provide the comfort and support that is needed. “She will sit with a child witness, put her head on their lap, lie down with a child sitting on the floor, whatever she's needed to do.”

Merel has had a tremendous impact on Rachel’s ability to build rapport with young victims. “Conversations flow more freely when Merel is the opening topic,” she explains. “This leads to much more productive conversations as all parties involved feel more comfortable.”

However, working with a canine colleague is not without its challenges. “Merel is VERY slow and lazy,” remarks Rachel. “This makes her very good at her job, but it also makes it difficult to get around with any urgency. I used to walk to work, but now I drive because it would take me all day to get to work with slow-moving Merel!”

"It's hard to believe I did my job without her,” reflects Rachel. “She’s changed how I do my work and how young people respond to their court experience.”  For Merel, it’s all in a day’s work. 

This article appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of the King's Herald