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Good dog: Ramsey County taps retriever to ease courthouse stress

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Norie is the Ramsey County Attorney's Office new facility dog.
Norie, the new facility dog at the Ramsey County Attorney's Office, lays beneath a conference table Monday. She'll be part of a team to help people work through the legal system.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

The newest staffer at the Ramsey County Attorney's Office is a highly trained professional. But this staffer doesn't have a law degree — she wears a collar and a leash to work and gets around on four paws.

Norie, a 2-year-old golden retriever, makes her public debut Tuesday as part of a team to help people work through the legal system.

"This is not somebody's pet coming in because it makes them feel better," said Tami McConkey, director of the victim witness and community services division for the Ramsey County Attorney's Office. "She's a facility dog. That's the specific term. She's not a therapy dog."

At McConkey's urging, Norie is the latest in more than 200 so-called courthouse dogs around the country that are being used to help dial down some of the pressure of what can be a very adversarial and stressful process.

"Dogs help people calm down, and help them have the confidence to tell us what happened, and tell us everything that happened, so we learn the full extent of how they were victimized and how they're trying to recover," said McConkey.

Norie is believed to be the first such dog in the state — although dogs are widely used in other law enforcement functions. She will work full time in the office of John Choi, the county attorney in St. Paul.

Bill Kube, a victim/witness advocate, walks with Norie in the office.
Victim-witness advocate Bill Kubes walks Norie. She is a 2-year-old golden retriever.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Choi said prosecutors and others are understanding better that the justice system can add to the trauma of crime. He said Norie may help ease that burden.

"Especially for those young ones that have to get up on the stand," said Choi. "Often they're doing it in a very, very stressful situation, where they might have to testify against their own family members, or they're worried about what harm might come to them or their family. And so incorporating the use of the dog to make that time a little bit better for our victims and witnesses, I think is really, really important."

Norie is not headed to the witness stand just yet. Ramsey County District Court hasn't signed off on the experiment there. For now, she's primarily a soothing presence in the run-up to criminal proceedings, although her supporters expect her role to expand.

That's happened elsewhere, according to Ellen O'Neill-Stephens, a former prosecutor in Seattle who started the courthouse dogs program in 2003. Even juvenile defendants in drug court told her they appreciated having a calming canine presence outside the courtroom, and sometimes even snoozing in front of the judge's bench. 

"They know they're going to be sanctioned," O'Neill-Stephens said. "But they've got the dog there. They ask, 'Can I have the dog with me today? This is going to be bad.' Yes. They can be there, take their medicine and it makes a difference."

The dogs can't be used as a prop for prosecutors to elicit sympathy from jurors said O'Neill-Stephens. There has to be some articulated need for their presence, and they have to have a qualified, trained handler. 

Norie lives with her handler, Bill Kubes, when she's off duty. Kubes, a former Minneapolis cop and victim-witness advocate for the county attorney's office in St. Paul, has already seen how a dog can help put witnesses and victims at ease.

"I have had them say stuff in our meetings that they didn't tell investigators or anybody else. So obviously, they're very comfortable with her being in there," Kubes said.

Norie is from Helping Paws, a nonprofit that trains service dogs. The organization gave Norie to the county for a minimal application and equipment fee. Officials estimate the dog's annual cost will run about $8,000 a year for food, veterinary fees, equipment, insurance and other expenses — but they say it's worth it for people going through the stress of the criminal justice system.