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UK’s first ‘justice support dog’ to help vulnerable victims of crime

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Oliver, a two-year-old black labrador, is the UK’s first justice facility dog.

He has been specially trained from a very young age to support vulnerable victims and witnesses of crime by offering them “quiet companionship”.

By sitting calmly at their feet, or resting his head on their lap, researchers claim he can put people at ease and improve their ability to recount distressing experiences to detectives.

He has been donated by a US charity and flown over to begin work on a pilot project with Kent Police and Canterbury Christ Church University, in what is thought to be the first scheme of its kind in the UK.

Dr Liz Spruin, a psychologist and Oliver’s primary handler, told Sky News: “Oliver provides the companionship a lot of people want when they’re giving evidence, he provides unconditional support.

“If you’ve been through traumatic events and you’re giving evidence to someone you don’t even know, he provides the support to allow you to tell your story.”

Dr Liz Spruin has said Oliver provides 'unconditional support' to victims
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Dr Liz Spruin has said Oliver provides ‘unconditional support’ to victims

Oliver lives and works with Dr Spruin and other researchers, with the team working to evaluate his effectiveness at supporting people.

It is the first European research study of its kind.

Dr Spruin added: “He can sense when someone’s upset, and he’s trained to stay by their side.

“No matter how upset somebody gets, he’ll continue to support them.”

The use of these type of dogs is far more common in North America, with more than 200 thought to be currently working in police stations and courthouses.

Zach Rigler has said a dog would have helped him 'take his mind off things' when he gave evidence
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Zach Rigler has said a dog would have helped him ‘take his mind off things’ when he gave evidence

In the UK, many vulnerable victims – such as children – never have to go to court, so Oliver’s initial focus is supporting them as they take part in video-recorded police interviews.

But, in the future, it’s hoped he could also be used in court cases.

The pilot has received the backing of Baroness Newlove, the victims’ commissioner for England and Wales.

She told Sky News: “Victims are not a statistic, they’re not a case file, they’re human beings who’ve been traumatised and damaged.

“It’s very nerve-wracking and intimidating giving evidence.

“I think this project is a creative way of helping victims, if they feel that by stroking the dog it can humanise a police station or courtroom environment that can feel very clinical.”

Oliver appears in a US courtroom before his trip to the UK
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Oliver appears in a US courtroom before his trip to the UK

Zach Rigler, 26, was recently called to give evidence at crown court after witnessing a knife attack in south London.

He says it “put him off” ever going to court again.

Mr Rigler added: “It was one of the most stressful experiences I’ve gone through in recent years.

“You’re standing there, there are 20 or 30 people staring at you. The suspect is in court reacting to what you’re saying. I just wanted to be out of there, I wanted it to be over.”

Mr Rigler thinks having a facility dog in the waiting area could have helped him.

He continued: “On the day, I would have loved to have had a dog with me, even just to have played with while I was waiting, to take my mind off things.”

Canterbury Christ Church signed an agreement with Kent Police in September 2018 and Oliver started helping his first victims earlier this month.

The force said it was “always looking for innovative ways” to put the needs of victims first.

Detective Superintendent Susie Harper said: “This project will enable us to find out more about how facility dogs can support victims and witnesses by providing comfort whilst decreasing anxiety and longer-term recovery from trauma so that better mental health and well-being is achieved.”

The pilot doesn’t require public funding because Oliver’s ongoing costs are paid for by the US charity Duo, which trained him for 18 months.

Dr Spruin and the other academics involved predict the study could last as long as seven years.

Over that time, they plan to build an evidence base to prove “how beneficial these dogs can be”.

If successful, they hope that dogs like Oliver could become a far more common sight in police stations and courtrooms across the UK in the years to come.

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