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Specially trained dogs follow smell of stress

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DA Dogs are trained to help calm people who are under a great deal of stress. Sometimes even the dog needs a break. Lincoln, seen here, helps a small child pick out toys at CYFD. (Submitted Photo)

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Gina Yeager is the coordinator for the District Attorney Court House Dogs Foundation, also known as the DA Dogs.

“I’ve been with the program since the beginning,” she said. “I was a backup handler. I was fourth in line to handle Max and they brought Lincoln down. Lincoln and I built this amazing bond. Lincoln was our bonus dog.”

The program was inspired by the CASA dogs.

“We started the program in April of 2014,” Yeager said. “CASA here in Roswell has courthouse dogs and they had Emma. Hobbs had Cooper. Our attorneys had used both Emma and Cooper, but when we were in court they were busy in another place.”

The current DA and her predecessor got their heads together and figured out how to make this happen.

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“Dianna Luce, our current DA, had talked to the former DA, Jeanetta Hicks, about there being a need,” Yeager said. “Hicks found funding for four dogs, Lincoln and Max in Roswell, McKenzie in Hobbs and Lydia in Carlsbad. We’re working on the funding for dog number five to keep the program going.”

Yeager said the dogs are carefully selected before being trained. Then the humans get trained.

“The dogs we use are from Santa Fe Assistance Dogs of the West,” she said. “They go through two years of training. They’re picked out as puppies. Then the handlers have to go through at least one week of training before they become certified handlers of these dogs.

“The training we get is eight to nine ours a day for seven days. It’s very intense. They match their dogs to the human. They let the dogs pick the human, not the other way around. They’ve been at this long enough to know the dogs are smarter about these things than people.”

There are primary handlers for each dog, and secondary handlers for them as well.

“The primary handlers are employees at the DA’s office,” Yeager said. “We have people at CYFD who are trained to use our dogs too. We did that because CYFD needs our dogs too, but we couldn’t afford to let DA employees go with them, so Jeanetta Hicks had five CYFD people trained to handle them.”

The primary handler has most of the responsibilities.

“I am a primary handler,” Yeager said. “We take care of all the dog’s needs. They go home with us. We are in charge of making sure the dog is cared for, fed and groomed. If the dog or the other handlers start swaying from commands it’s up to the primary handler to make sure that everybody’s still on track.”

Yeager’s responsibilities go a bit further than other handlers’.

“My job is Courthouse Dog Coordinator,” she said. “I have to make sure that handlers and dogs are all up to date on certifications and training and everybody can hand off a dog and it’s all the same commands.”

They’ve developed a structure to support this.

“We try to get together once a year at least,” Yeager said, “but if there’s specific problems I travel to the office in question and we work through it. We work really well together. We’re up to almost 20 handlers for four dogs, so there is going to be a little drift. If any of us is doing something wrong everybody else checks them on it.”

The program is not without its challenges.

“There is always change going on because we use the dogs in different situations,” Yeager said. “We have problems with people bringing in their personal untrained dogs and presenting them as service dogs. Our dogs need to be used to having any dog walk in and not react. Our dogs are really good.

“Most of the issues we have are when handlers get lax. I’m guilty of it. If we start saying to the dog “OK, let’s go” and that’s not the proper command, we’re teaching it to drift. Small things could turn into a big problem down the road.”

Yeager said the standards the dogs are trained and maintained to are strict.

“Our dogs are ADI certified,” she said. “We have to meet the International Disabilities Act standard. Our dogs are trained and bred for court work and to deal with crazy behavior. If someone is hysterical our dog should go lay their head in the person’s lap.”

Sometimes the dog’s training and the handlers’ expectations don’t match up exactly.

“The dogs are trained to focus on the person with the most stress,” Yeager said, “so sometimes they focus on a family member rather than on the victim because that person is feeling more stress worrying about the family member than the actual victim.

“We’ve had phone calls saying the dog didn’t lay down with the person they expected. We’d ask, ‘Who was stressing?’ and they’d say, ‘They were saying goodbye to a parent and the dad was really stressing out.’ So we’d ask, ‘where did the dog go?’ and they’d say, ‘He went to the dad.’ That’s what they’re supposed to do, when we let them do their job things work out well.”

Yeager’s dog, Lincoln, surprised her one day by doing exactly what he was trained to do.

“Lincoln, the one that I usually work with, usually lays under my desk,” she said. “One day he got up while I was on the phone and I couldn’t get off the phone. When I went looking for him, I found him laying his head in the lap of someone who had been hysterical. They were petting him and smiling by the time I got there.

“We’ve been fortunate that our dogs are allowed in the court room. They help kids and adults who have to give difficult testimonies.”

The program is successful, and as a non-profit it always needs more funds to continue serving the community.

“We need to continue building the program and finding funding,” Yeager said. “We’ve been so lucky, we have food and grooming for these dogs. These dogs are not cheap. We just got done with a huge salsa sale. We did a garage sale. We’ve done raffles. We need day-to-day care to be covered.”

The dogs add a new dimension to the DA’s office.

“With a dog we’re more approachable,” Yeager said. “We’re human that way, and people are less afraid to come to us now.”

Of course dogs can’t work forever.

“Lincoln’s 8-1/2 so we’re starting to phase him out,” Yeager said. “He’ll be coming to the office as a greeter after he’s retired. When they retire a dog they generally retire with their primary handler if the DA and Assistance Dogs of the West approve. A dog’s working life is from age 2 to about 8 to 10.”

DA Dogs can be found at 5thdadogs.org. There’s also a Facebook account for anyone who would like to know more.

Features reporter Curtis M. Michaels can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or at reporter04@rdrnews.com.