Porter County’s official courthouse dog provides comfort to children, adults alike
By James D. Wolf Jr. Post-Tribune correspondent September 3, 2013 2:48PM
Deputy Porter County Prosecutor Cheryl Polarek and Porter County Prosecutor Brian Gensel with Tony, who's been trained to help comfort victims, witnesses and others at the Porter County Courthouse. | James D. Wolf Jr./For Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 12, 2013 6:05AM
VALPARAISO — The newest member of the Porter County Prosecutor’s office doesn’t have a law degree. He didn’t even go to college.
He didn’t need to. His job description includes walking on all fours and helping people relax, and he’s a natural at both.
Tony is an official courthouse dog, trained through the Indiana Canine Assistance Network to give reassurance and comfort in what can be frightening circumstances.
Since starting mid-June, the light-brown pooch has worked mostly with children who have to talk about horrible experiences.
“There’s a very profound reaction when he sees children,” Deputy Prosecutor Cheryl Polarek said. “There are adults that all want something from them. He doesn’t. He just wants to love them and get love back.”
Research shows that people talk more with a dog around.
The children think, “If the dog is okay with that adult, I can be, too,” Polarek said.
Chief Deputy Prosecutor Matt Frost said that every victim who’s had experience with Tony asks if he’ll be there when they return.
Tony began his new position about June 14, when Polarek picked him up from the Indiana Women’s Prison, where he trained for two years as part of a program there.
In his graduating class, two other dogs were trained to help autistic children, one to help a diabetic, one to help a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder and three to be facility dogs.
Tony’s nature indicated he’d be most effective to comfort people.
“He didn’t have the skill set for a medical dog. He’s just drawn to people — especially, especially children,” Polarek said.
His training includes 30 commands, from “sit” and “stay” to the specialized “visit” (head sympathetically on the lap), “hug” (head on a person’s shoulder) and “secret” (snuffling and perhaps licking a person’s ear).
However, when Tony has the helper dog harness taken off, he becomes just like any other dog and romps with Polarek’s other two dogs.
Polarek — who passed a personality “match” to get him and spent a week training to work with him — heard about courthouse dogs through a flyer. He attended a conference and decided, “I’ve got to do this.”
It costs about $30,000 to train a courthouse dog, but through the program, the Prosecutor’s Office paid $1,000.
Porter County Prosecutor Brian Gensel, who spent years working with victims of sex crimes, said Tony’s more useful than he anticipated.
Tony does his duties at least two or three times a week.
A courthouse dog is not just for traumatized children but the entire courthouse, Polarek said.
Magistrates can request him during family cases, and defense attorneys can request him to calm clients.
Tony also has a positive effect on the mood in the prosecutor’s office.
“Just like the kids look forward to him, we look forward to him, too,” Gensel said.