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Mahoning County Area Court No. 3 hosts special 4-legged guests

Mahoning County Area Court Judge J.P. Morgan is hoping to help ease the anxiety, testing out an idea that brought several four-legged stress reduction experts and their handlers to the building on Sept. 12. (Photo by Kimberly Durgala/Legal News).

Legal News Reporter

Published: September 26, 2019

Whether a defendant or a witness, courtrooms can be intimidating, especially for anyone who has never had a reason to go to court before.

Mahoning County Area Court Judge J.P. Morgan is hoping to help ease the anxiety, testing out an idea that brought several four-legged stress reduction experts and their handlers to the building on Sept. 12.

The four canines made their first appearance in Area Court No. 3 in Sebring from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., courtesy of the local chapter of the volunteer organization Go Team Therapy, Crisis and Airports Dogs Inc., earning rave reviews from many, including Judge Morgan.

“The dogs were all very disciplined and extremely loving when they interacted with humans,” said Judge Morgan.

“They spent time in the court lobby and conference room areas. We also had a couple of domestic violence cases going on and the alleged victims got the chance to interact with the dogs.

“Everyone who came into contact with the dogs had a very positive response.”

Judge Morgan said the idea for the one-day pilot program is more than a year in the making and dates back to another therapy dog visit he witnessed as a practicing attorney.

“I handled a lot of domestic relations cases in my private practice,” said Judge Morgan. “One day while I was in Trumbull County Family Court, I met Rita McIntosh, who helps run the local chapter of a therapy dog program. She had brought some of the dogs to court that day and I noticed immediately how the entire environment was less tense and not as emotionally charged.

“After I became a judge I ran into Rita at another event and I asked if she ever went into the criminal courts,” he said. “She said she had not but would be willing to do so.”

After discussing the idea with the other county court judges, including Administrative Judge Scott Hunter, Judge Morgan got the go-ahead to give it a try.

Rita McIntosh, a member of the board and the scheduler for The Go Team Therapy/Crisis Dogs of Mahoning and Steel Valley said the chapter has 40 dog-handler teams, including the four therapy dogs--Lucy, Bree, Theia and Bella Rose--that paid a visit to Judge Morgan’s court.

“We are very selective when choosing teams,” said McIntosh. “Our teams go through extensive training and must pass several different good citizen canine certification tests.”

The final leg of the training is done by Executive Director Nancy Trepagnier, who founded the organization in Colorado in 2012.

“The organization developed as a result of the Waldo Canyon fire, which led to the evacuation of over 30,000 residents,” said McIntosh. “Two therapy dogs and their handlers visited the displaced residents and spent time with first responders, providing them with comfort and helping them deal with the tragedy. Nancy was one of the handlers. She realized the need for therapy and crisis dog handler teams and started the organization.”

Today the national and international volunteer organization has over 1,000 teams available to assist first responders and others who find themselves facing traumatic and stressful situations.

“Locally several of our dogs are court dogs in Trumbull County that are available to sit with children in cases where they need to testify,” said McIntosh. “Our dogs go to crisis events and even funerals. We recently attended the funeral of a child who passed away in Akron.”

Given the positive reactions to the Sept. 12 pilot, Judge Morgan said he hopes to make therapy dog visits a part of the court’s regular routine at least once a month, which he said won’t cost the county any money since the volunteer organization is funded entirely by donations.

In the coming weeks, he plans to meet with the other county court judges to talk about the potential benefits and hopefully begin taking steps to implement a program.

“Although the county courts don’t deal with high stakes cases like rape and murder, we do regularly deal with victims of domestic violence, which can involve having a parent or child in court to testify,” said Judge Morgan.

“County courts are also unique in that we regularly have individuals who are appearing in court for the first time ever in their life. This can be very stressful for them, so if we can help to put them at ease, it will hopefully enable them to resolve their matters in a more timely and perhaps less litigious fashion, which will benefit everyone involved.”