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Fauquier in line for a facility dog

Thursday, Apr. 24 | By Julie Taylor
Take a moment to remember your most painful experience. Now imagine that you are forced to give every specific detail of that trauma to a group of strangers, who are judging every word you say.

Soon, children who have to testify in Fauquier courts will have a four-legged ally in their corner.

Could a dog help ease the tension? Courthouse Dogs is on a mission to provide every courthouse in America with a canine companion for children who must pass through a legal system that can often be frightening and stressful. Fauquier County is about a year away from having their own Courthouse Dogs animal.

Commonwealth's Attorney James Fisher attended a conference in 2012 where he learned about the program, which is led and founded by Celeste Walsen and Ellen O'Neill-Stephens.

"My first reaction was 'this is crazy.' Then I went to the workshop," said Fisher. "That was my first exposure to this program."

After hearing Walsen and O'Neill-Stephens talk about their program he thought, "Wow, this is fantastic. Let's try this."

The program, which began in 2003, has distributed 60 dogs to 23 American states, and two internationally.

Right now, Fauquier County's facility dog is one of the pups in training at St. Francis Service Dogs in Roanoke. The dog is only halfway through its rigorous schooling, which begins within the first days of life. The dog will be chosen from the group based on which one would fit best.

"We're really excited that Mr. Fisher chose an accredited school," said O'Neill-Stephens.

Lori Jones has volunteered herself to be the dog's owner and bring it to and from its various appointments. Jones is a former police officer and currently is a victim-witness case manager for crimes against children and other vulnerable victims at the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney.

"Lori has been a real resource to get this program going. I give all the credit to her," Fisher said.

Coincidentally, Jones and O'Neill-Stephens both have sons with cerebral palsy who have benefited greatly from service dogs.

"My son has had service dogs from St. Francis," Jones said. "So it's a very natural progression to incorporate this with my job here."

Fisher has an exact plan moving forward with the dog, whose $25,000 price tag was covered in full by St. Francis Service Dogs after they were approved.

"My view is to phase the dog in: sort of acclimate the dog to our system; acclimate our system to the dog," he said. "This will be a really new concept for this area."

He said phase one will be using the dog in the investigative setting in cooperation with groups like the Fauquier County Sheriff's Office and the Department of Social Services.

"Interviewing a child can be a very challenging process that takes a lot of expertise, and the assistance of the dog working with the interviewer can help that," Fisher said.

If all goes well, phase two—the courtroom setting—would be the next step.

"This is a national and international trend that's really kind of taking off," he said. "I wanted to get in on it because I think it's a very valuable program, with a lot of potential."

Sidenote about the handler:
Lori Jones recently received one of the awards given out for National Crime Victim's Rights Week to applaud her work in dealing with an elderly victim of a robbery. The woman had suffered serious physical and emotional injury, and Jones made a point of being present for meetings at her home and at the office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney.

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