VALPARAISO | Charged with the responsibility of handing many of the county's sex crimes and some of the other more violent offenses, Deputy Prosecutor Cheryl Polarek knows firsthand how stressful the legal process can be on victims, witnesses and even courthouse staff.
It was with this in mind that Polarek applied for and received approval to bring aboard help in the form of a 22-month-old golden and Labrador retriever mix dog.
The specially-trained courthouse dog, named Tony, will be the only one of its type on the job in Indiana, she said. Boone County had one, but it has since moved on with its handler.
"It's a new trend," she said.
Tony has undergone months of training in the ability to remain still and quiet during legal proceedings, and as Polarek put it, "to love people." Unlike a comfort dog, Tony is trained not to react to emotions, she said.
Tony's training was tailored for the Porter County courthouse. That training included making sure he is fine with traveling on an elevator, walking on slick floors and is not bothered by sirens from the nearby firehouse.
Depending on the wishes of the various judges, Tony can be used to sit alongside victims as they testify or when being interviewed outside the courtroom by attorneys, she said. Research shows that petting a dog facilitates children speaking, she said.
"Children see dogs as peers," Polarek said. "The thought is, if the dog trusts you, then so will I."
"Furthermore, for the child, the dog is unconditional love," she said. "They know that every adult involved is concerned about them, but all the adults have a job to do. The dog is there for them only."
Polarek said she had to travel to the Indiana Women's Prison in Indianapolis where the dogs are trained to make sure she and the dog were compatible. This is important because Tony will not only work with Polarek, but will live with her as well. She will train with the dog for a week next month.
The animal is prepared to take commands from others as well. This will allow Tony to be loaned out during the work day, for use when Polarek is not around.
The $25,000 to train Tony was paid by private donations through the Indiana Canine Assistance Network, she said.