MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The latest addition at the Brooks-Sellers One Place Family Justice Center provides calmness, relief and plenty of tail wags for clients.
Willow VI is a 2-year-old black Labrador retriever who is trained as a service dog at One Place, which helps victims of domestic abuse, sexual abuse and elder abuse.
Willow also is the first service dog in the state to be used in courtrooms to help witnesses who are testifying.
Tamara Martin, Willow’s handler, said the common reaction that One Place clients have to Willow is evidence of the comfort that she brings
“The first thing they do when Willow walks up to them is take her head and just bury their head into her and just break down and cry,” Martin said.
Montgomery County District Attorney Daryl Bailey said his office used Willow to help victims testify during the most recent meeting of the grand jury.
She will accompany children who are testifying, but she also will help elderly witnesses and whoever else might need a little more inner strength when taking the stand, Bailey said.
She might even convince some people to testify who otherwise would not agree to it, he said.
“I think there are going to be folks who would not testify if it were not for Willow. I think she is going to provide that extra oomph that they need to tell their story,” Bailey said.
The National Family Justice Center Alliance has expressed interest in replicating the program at centers around the world, he said.
Martin is retired, having worked with victims for eight years and then with the federal court system for 21 years. She now works on a voluntary basis at One Place.
Willow was trained from birth by Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit that trains service dogs.
Martin said she started the process of trying to acquire a service dog for the center in December 2012.
The application process took about a year, and after Martin went to Orlando, Florida, to train with Willow, the two of them joined One Place in June.
While Willow has been valued at $25,000, she was provided to One Place free of charge. She technically still belongs to Canine Companions, but as long as Martin meets requirements such as keeping her at the proper weight, she will remain at One Place.
Willow was trained to be extremely docile, so nothing much seems to bother her. Wednesday, she was lounging around on a couch at the justice center.
“She’s so easygoing,” Martin said. “She lowers your blood pressure.”
Willow makes regular visits to the playroom for children at One Place, where she performs tricks for them and lets them pet her, Martin said.
She knows about 38 different commands, including the usuals like sit, stay and shake.
The command “visit” means it is time for her to greet a victim who needs consoling.
She also can open certain types of doors, turn the pages of a book and obey commands to relieve herself when she is outside or to jump into the tub for a bath.
Martin said those commands come in handy after Willow goes home with her every day.
The service that Willow provides is something that the victims could not really receive any other way, she said.
“I think it is very beneficial for her to be here,” Martin said. “To just have unconditional love and have somebody who is gonna not talk back, not give advice, not ask questions, but somebody who is just going to love them.”