$700,000 grant awarded for comfort dog program

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 13, 2019

The Covington County District Attorney’s Office is joining a statewide program that helps victims of crimes by incorporating a comfort dog in tough situations.

A $700,000 grant from the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs will fund the program.

District Attorney Walt Merrell found out about the program while he was at a meeting at the State’s District Attorney Association.

“Back when there was only one dog being used in Shelby County,” Merrell said. “I knew that there was an opportunity for expansion. Covington County is a little unique because we are like the metropolis, if you will, between Mobile, Montgomery and Dothan. So, our dog will serve a total of five counties, but they are all rural counties, which will be manageable.”

Merrell said the dogs will mostly be used with children who are victims of crime or abuse.

“Theoretically they can serve adults, too,” Merrell said. “But it will be predominantly for children. The child and dog will most likely meet first at the Child Advocacy Center when the child goes for their forensic interview. What happens is, the dog becomes the diversion for the child during those stressful and anxious times. They would also go during counseling, anytime the child comes to court to testify, meet with prosecutors or anything else. Ideally, the dog will always be there. The way that it works in other jurisdictions when the child goes to court, the dog would go in the courtroom with the child and lay at their feet during the testimony portion. A lot of studies show that having just the companionship of a pet eases a child’s anxiety. The dog wouldn’t necessarily be a pet, but it would be close to one.”

Shawn Bentley has already been chosen as the dog’s handler.

“Shawn works for me about three and a half days a week already,” Merrell said. “He does all of my check unit things and is also certified as a police officer. He is also the full-time pastor of the First Baptist Church in Gantt. So, when the comfort dog opportunity came up, I thought, ‘You know, what better guy than the guy who has a ministerial heart to be the guy that does this,’ So, I approached Shawn about it and he loved the idea.”

Bentley has already received both certifications for the handling process.

Deputy District Attorney Association Barry Matson says. “The group out of Florida provide the dogs to us at no charge but the dogs can be $25-$50 thousand dollars a piece with the training that they go through.”

Merrell expects to have a dog in Covington County by the start of 2020.

“It takes about a year to train the dog to do the things required,” Merrell said. “So, since Shawn already has his certifications, he will have to go through intense training with the dog that is coming to Covington County. We will probably receive a call saying that we have a dog in late fall or early winter.”

This program is paving the way for several nations and other states to provide the same comfort dogs, Merrell said.

“I know that a lot of people look down on Alabama or say that we are last in everything,” Merrell said. “The countries of Canada and Australia are now actively emulating what Alabama is doing when it comes to this particular type of service dog. What is often overlooked is how innovative Alabama is as a state. I mean, we are forging the path of courtroom service comfort dogs.”

The Alabama District Attorney’s Association expects 12 dogs will be recruited in the next year.