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Furry friends soothe children during courtroom drama

In an effort to create a more friendly, reassuring and positive courtroom environment for frightened young children, Williamson County Juvenile Court Judge Sharon Guffee recently partnered with some of Williamson County Animal Control’s furry, four-legged residents and their two-legged handlers for help.

Anyone who has ever loved on a dog knows petting one of those four-legged critters can change a gray day to full sun. Now scientists have proved the calming is real. It is caused by the release of the hormone oxytocin, which “triggers feelings of happiness, stress and depression relief, as well as an increased feeling of trust,” according to biologists at the Azuba University in Japan.

Nursing homes often encourage visiting dogs, hospitals find children with serious illnesses deal much better with a canine buddy in their corner and autistic children appear to have more success when a dog is by their side.

“Dogs do something we can’t do as humans,” said Guffee. “We can’t soothe.”

Every Tuesday the Court Docket involves cases from the Department of Children’s Services. The cases usually deal with decisions regarding living arrangements for abused and neglected children who have already dealt with their share physical and/or emotional pain.

Many are too young to fully understand what is happening to them and all are frightened as they await decisions they also don’t understand.

To reduce the stress and emotional pain, Guffee started inviting some “furry friends” from Williamson County Animal Control to drop by.

“Since the first of January Mark Basenberg, WCAC community relations coordinator, started bringing over different dogs,” said Guffee.

The dogs are carefully chosen, Basenberg said. Dogs that are not too “barky,” not too high energy, that do well in a congested situation and are good with children are chosen for a day trip to court.

“We have to be careful no one gets hurt – that’s paramount,” Guffee said. “We checked with the sheriff about bringing dogs into his facility. He is supportive.”

The dogs seem to sense they’re on a mission.

“They become the best behaved dogs when they come into this building, Basenberg said.

Having dogs in the courtroom has changed the atmosphere, said Betsy Adgent, director of Juvenile Services.

“We have found children to be much more at peace and trusting of our decisions because their experience was improved by the presence of a furry pal who sat next to them as they waited on a decision,” she said.

This Tuesday Gabana, a 10-month old male lab mix and Sampson, an almost two-year old Great Pyrenees, visited Juvenile Court.

Outside the courtroom a little boy tried hard to behave but itched to run and play. When he entered the courtroom with his foster mom, his demeanor changed. He was timid and too frightened to approach the bench – until Sampson sat next to him. The boy laid his little hand on the dog’s white fur and relaxed while adults made decisions in his best interest.

Last week a teary-eyed eight-year old girl was upset because she was not allowed to be in the same room as her mother. She knew her mom was in the building and she desperately wanted to see her. While mom was in the courtroom, the child was sequestered in another room crying hysterically until Fred the dog went in.

“Fred licked her entire face and she began giggling and laughing,” Guffee said. “That’s what she will remember. Not the sadness. I don’t think we really know the impact animals have on children.”

According to Guffee, she would eventually like to have an official Juvenile Court dog children can become accustomed to seeing,

“There’s something to be said about having the same animal, but they kind of like a lot of different dogs,” she said.

Until that decision is made, there is no shortage of loving dogs at WCAC who long for a day in court to play with kids. Judy Lindberg, WCAC lead volunteer, adopted Sampson. Gabana, the Labrador mix, is looking for a loving home.

For information about adopting a dog or cat from WCAC, call 615-790-5590 or visit


Posted on: 2/14/2013


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