In his first interview with Suffolk County investigators, the little boy was too traumatized to talk much. The fourth-grader was a victim of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of a family member, but he could not bring himself to tell his story.
Until he met Indy, a 2-year-old golden retriever and Labrador mix, specially trained to comfort people in emotional distress. Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley hired him last month, as the first “facility dog” to be placed in a Massachusetts district attorney’s office or any governmental agency in New England.
“We introduced the young boy to Indy, and after getting to know each other for a little while they went into the interview room, and something remarkable happened there,” Conley said at a press conference Thursday. “The boy opened up more than he ever had before. There was something about Indy’s gentle, loving nature that helped this child speak.”
As Conley spoke, Indy lay serenely at his feet, looking professional in a blue vest emblazoned with the name of the nonprofit that donated him to Suffolk County: Canine Companions for Independence.
“One of the things that dogs are able to do that we are not: build trust and create a sense of relaxation,” said Ellen Torop, northeast regional manager for Canine Companions. “We feel a great reduction in anxiety, a greater sense of calm, a greater sense of security.”
Each service dog Canine Companions places costs more than $45,000 to raise and train. The dogs are bred in California, and at 8 weeks old, go to live with volunteers who raise them and teach them basic commands. After about a year and a half of this socialization, each dog undergoes an additional six months of intensive training, where it learns more than 50 commands. The program standards are high: Only about 4 in 10 dogs make it all the way through. Each dog is recertified every year, and Canine Companions retains ownership.
Canine Companions was founded in 1975, but the idea of training dogs to work in criminal justice is fairly new. Only 59 have been placed around the country since 2004, Torop said. But already, she said, handlers report that the dogs make conversations between victims and investigators much easier.
“A sweet, happy dog walks in, wags its tail, sits down, puts its head on your lap — there’s just something about that,” Torop said.
Indy started his new job in Suffolk County just last month, but in addition to helping the little boy, Conley said, the dog has already made friends with a teenage sexual assault victim and met with a family working through their grief over a loved one’s debilitating car accident injury.
“There’s something about Indy’s friendly, trusting nature that breaks the ice and puts people at ease,” Conley said.
Indy happily obliged Conley’s commands to sit, lie down, and shake hands, but required some prodding to speak, prompting laughs about his quiet nature.
The decision of when to deploy Indy, Conley said, is currently made on a case-by-case basis, after conversations with victims. But the dog’s duties could expand into the county’s drug, mental health, and veterans’ courts, Conley said.
“You don’t have to be a kid to be nervous about testifying in the grand jury or at trial, and having a friend like Indy around to calm you down beforehand can really help victims and witnesses alike,” Conley said.
Then, Conley turned to Indy.
“What do we have to say, Indy?” he asked, and shook his paw. “Attaboy. Welcome aboard.”