What's Working
7:20 am
Mon February 21, 2011

A Chocolate Lab who does his part to help Michigan's children

For this week’s edition of our series “What’s Working,” Morning Edition Host Christina Shockley welcomes Dan Cojanu. He’s the Vice President and Program Director of the Canine Advocacy Program (CAP), based in Oakland County. Through the use of a Chocolate Labrador named Amos, the CAP provides support to child victims of abuse and neglect when they are required to testify or be present in court.

Cojanu begins by explaining how he began organizing the CAP. As he was preparing to retire from his job as the Supervisor for Victim’s Services in Oakland County in 2008, Cojanu decided that he wasn’t done with victim advocacy. Not only did he want to continue work with victims of crime, Cojanu says he also had a desire to work with dogs.

“I did a little research, and I wound up out in Seattle at the Courthouse Dogs Program. And once I was able to observe what these dogs bring to the court setting, to forensic interviews, I just got so excited that I had to bring this back to Michigan.”

When a child has to go before a court as a victim, Cojanu says the experience can be overwhelmingly stressful for his or her emotions.

“These children, when they come to court, the anxiety level, I don’t think it can be measured. They’re going to have to be in front of a bunch of adults who they don’t know, all strangers, and tell the most intimate details of a sexual assault or neglect or abuse or whatever. And it’s so frightening to these kids.”

When a trained service dog like Amos is introduced to the situation, though, Cojanu says the effects are phenomenal.

“You bring a dog into the picture and they have a whole new focus. They have a big cuddly Lab that they can do tricks with, take for walks. A lot of the kids will draw pictures of Amos, and it just brings that anxiety level so far down, that by the time they’re ready to go to court, they’re at least a little better prepared, certainly more relaxed. And it’s just phenomenal. And when they’re done, you know, Amos is there for a big hug.”

Occasionally, Amos has been allowed to sit beside children as they testify on the witness stand. That makes Amos the first dog ever permitted to sit beside someone as they testified in a Michigan courtroom.

Cojanu says that, in his thirty years of work as an advocate for victims, he has never seen a child leave the witness stand without being extremely upset. Since Amos has come around, though, Cojanu says things have been different.

“I can tell you that every case we’ve worked on, that child, when they’re going home, has a smile on their face. And that’s because of Amos. It’s what he brings.”

Obviously, it takes a special kind of dog to be effective in situations that are so emotionally charged. But Amos, says Cojanu, is certainly the right dog for the job.

“He’s very young. He’s not quite three years old yet, so he still has the puppy personality. But he’s so intuitive it’s amazing. When he senses that somebody is having a difficult time, he goes over to assist kids. Amos also works at the Oakland County Children’s Village in a sexual assault survivor group, and if somebody’s having a difficult time, he gets up and goes over and curls up next to them. He’s just very intuitive, a very loving dog. He’s an amazing dog.”

Beyond the children Amos works with directly, Cojanu says Amos has had an impact on the lives of a wide-array of people in the community.

“He’s become almost the unofficial mascot of the Oakland County Courthouse because, when we train, you see people just smile as we come by. So, the impact goes well beyond the kids. And it helps the court because they now have somebody who’s going to be on the stand who can give them the information that they need. And he just spreads a lot of goodwill wherever he goes.”

Currently, Amos is the only dog in the CAP, but Mr. Cojanu thinks Amos is setting an example for many dogs like him to follow. The benefits of having an intuitive, caring dog like Amos around are starting to be understood by those in fields other than criminal justice, says Cojanu.

“I can see this type of program working with people that are victims of domestic violence. I think we can utilize them more in juvenile detention centers. I think it’s really limitless because any time you open the newspaper now you see that hospitals are utilizing dogs, schools are utilizing dogs in their reading programs. So, I think, as a society, we’re starting to understand what a canine can bring. And I think we’re just getting going on that, so I’m very excited about expanding the program.”

If you’d like to read more about the Canine Advocacy Program, or see pictures of Amos, go to: http://www.facebook.com/home.php#!/pages/Canine-Advocacy-Program/117832911566898

By Eliot Johnson – Michigan Radio Newsroom