Updated: 9:43 a.m.
It’s become a familiar sight for staff and visitors in the Stearns County Attorney's Office: a small golden retriever wearing a blue vest, padding along the hallways.
Nova, a 6-year-old trained facility dog, recently made history when she accompanied a young victim of sexual abuse as she testified on the witness stand, the first time in Minnesota.
Since the trial, Nova has been getting a lot of media attention for her calming presence and skill at providing reassuring support to victims.
Nova's path to Stearns County began in 2014, when County Attorney Janelle Kendall was at a meeting of district attorneys from other states.
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“We were out to dinner one night, and everyone else around the table had a courthouse dog,” she recalled. “I didn't even know such a thing existed.”
After three decades of prosecuting domestic violence and sexual abuse cases, Kendall said she was looking for ways to help victims, especially children, tell their stories.
“A natural reaction of people when they're afraid is to shut down,” she said. “That means no accountability. That means that the truth doesn't get out.”
A facility dog is trained to help calm a victim and make the experience of describing their abuse less stressful, said Assistant County Attorney Jamie Reinschmidt.
Minnesota courts already make accommodations for young victims, such as allowing them to have a support person with them or to testify via video, she said.
“A facility dog is going to help this victim lower their stress levels, lower their fear, kind of ground them in a way that you just don't get by having a comfort item up there, like a teddy bear or a blanket,” Reinschmidt said.
The county attorney's office reached out to Helping Paws, a nonprofit organization based in Hopkins, Minnesota.
Helping Paws Executive Director Alyssa Golob said it breeds and trains golden retrievers and Labrador retrievers to be assistance dogs for people with disabilities, veterans and first responders with post-traumatic stress, as well as facility or courthouse dogs such as Nova.
“That allows us to really have a great understanding of the dog's temperament, their stature, their health, any health issues,” Golob said.
The dogs stay with a volunteer foster trainer for about two and a half years. Then they're matched to a handler for a job who’s a good fit for their skills and personality.
Nova was picked to be a facility dog because of her compassion and ability to work with many different people, Golob said.
“She just has this old-soul type of personality about her,” she said.
Kendall said they tested a number of dogs first that just weren't the right for this job.
“Not every dog is cut out to do this,” she said. “We interviewed one that we said he'd be a great dog to party with, but I don't think we could take him into court. He was running up and down the halls.”
Keli Trautman, a paralegal and victim-witness coordinator for Stearns County, volunteered to be the facility dog’s handler. When Trautman met Nova, it was clear she was perfect.
“I fell in love with her the second I laid my eyes on her,” Trautman said. “And I feel like maybe the feeling was mutual. She was super nice and so sweet.”
A calming presence
The pair spent a week of intense training at Helping Paws headquarters. In October 2019, Nova started coming to work with Trautman in the county attorney's office. They graduated from the training program in 2020.
Nova has a natural empathy and compassion that just can't be trained, Trautman said.
“She is so intuitive. It's crazy,” Trautman said. “Sometimes I don't even need to tell her what to do. She just does it.”
Nova's most important job is to sit quietly as victims relate their experiences. Sometimes she rests her head in their lap and lets them pet her silky fur.
“She might appear that she's sleeping, but she's really not. She's listening,” Trautman said. “She listens for tones of voices. She listens for crying. And then she pops back up and she'll nudge their arm or rest her head again — ‘I'm here still.’”
Tratuman stresses that Nova is a facility dog, not a therapy dog or an office pet. When she's wearing her vest, she's doing her job. Staff have had to learn that Trautman's office is a no-petting zone.
“But then sometimes she gets to take off her vest, and then she's not working,” Kendall said. “So she knows then that she can hang out and just be a dog.”
Nova's biggest test came in April, during the trial of a Stearns County man charged with sexually abusing a girl starting when she was 8 years old. The abuse had taken place for almost half her life, and was still going on when the victim disclosed it, Reinschmidt said.
“What this victim went through — how long it was happening, the person in her life who was doing this to her, it was just egregious,” Reinschmidt said. “Then there was an abundance of physical evidence that she was going to have to talk about. It was different than other cases.”
The attorneys knew they'd have to overcome legal obstacles before Nova would be allowed in the courtroom. In Minnesota, there's no law allowing facility dogs in court, but none banning them either.
The defendant’s attorney objected, arguing a dog might prejudice a jury against his client. In their response, Stearns County prosecutors cited research about how traumatic the courtroom can be for children.
Lowering the victim's stress levels actually helps victims retrieve their memories and provide more accurate testimony, Reinschmidt said.
“When we're stressed and we can't think clearly, we can't think clearly. We can't communicate,” she said. “And that's exactly what you need to do on the witness stand is communicate what happened to you.”
The judge sided with Stearns County, and allowed Nova to accompany the victim. The 15-year-old girl testified for five hours. The entire time, Nova lay quietly at her feet, out of sight.
The jury convicted the man, who was sentenced to 30 years in prison in July.
Reinschmidt said she expects the defense attorneys to continue to object to Nova's presence in court.
“That's their job,” she said. “But at the end of the day, the result here is a complete, truthful, accurate story. And that's a win for both sides.”
Since the trial, Nova has also been getting a lot of media attention, including on national TV. A crew from “Good Morning, America” recently spent a day following her. Attorneys from across Minnesota have contacted Stearns County asking to borrow her.
Trautman said she thinks every county attorney's office should have a Nova. Even outside of the courtroom, Trautman said Nova is invaluable during interviews and helping prepare witnesses for trial.
“It's another tool in our tool belt,” she said. “Why wouldn't we want that to make our jobs better, to make the victims’ lives a little bit easier when they're talking to complete strangers about the really awful things that happen to them?”
Since word has spread about Nova, staff at Helping Paws say they've already gotten three more applications for court dogs.
Nova’s sister, Norie, is a facility dog in Ramsey County. Another dog trained by Helping Paws is providing support to the St. Paul fire department.
Golob said she anticipates more requests for facility dogs. Helping Paws hopes to meet the need, but it will take community support and volunteers, she said.
“As this wave keeps growing, we're just going to run with it,” Golob said. “We're hoping people come behind us and help us get there.”