The most beloved worker at the Taos County Courthouse isn't a judge, an attorney or a bailiff. In fact, he isn't even bipedal.
Shane, a standard poodle, has worked with the Eighth Judicial District Attorney’s Office since 2019, and he plays one of the more important, if hard-to-see roles in the courthouse.
Victim advocate dogs, as they are called, are a relatively new development in the traditional court system. The Eighth Judicial District got its first victim advocate dog back in 2009 – a black lab named Lincoln. Since then, several others have followed in his place, with this newest K-9 employee replacing the office's previous dog, Sally, who retired after her maximum eight years of service.
When it comes to victim testimonies, especially those by minors and victims of serious sexual, physical or mental abuse, recounting their experiences in front of strangers is extremely difficult. This is where Shane comes in. As a neutral party whose only job is to comfort others, he has made a reputation for himself over the past two years by helping victims get through those painful moments in as well as outside of the courtroom.
In charge of handling, training and directing Shane are Carla Trujillo and Theresa Martinez, both victim’s advocates with the district, though Martinez is the one who takes Shane home with her at the end of the work day. “He is so expensive and so well trained, that we needed somewhere that was safe for him to be at," Trujillo said. "I don't have a fenced-in yard so I couldn't keep him."
Shane didn’t just get lucky, he was groomed (literally and figuratively) for the job. At the young age of six weeks, he was selected as a prime service dog candidate, and through efforts by Assistance Dogs of the West (who provided the grant funding) and Texas A&M University (where he was trained), Shane was taught to assist people as an emotional support and service dog.
Whether it’s a safe room interview right after a traumatic event, or giving a public testimony in front of dozens of strangers, Shane is there to help, and his handlers say his presence produces real results by helping to keep the process moving forward.
Shane currently knows over 100 commands, and most of his training is geared toward providing comfort. “He has this keen sense. He knows when you're not feeling well or when you're not feeling confident, and he'll go and he'll lay his head on your lap,” said Martinez. He knows other tricks, too, and can press the elevator button in case someone, with a disability, for example, can't do so themselves.
Martinez recalled one instance in which Shane put that skill on display.
“One day we came in with a victim, and I asked them if they were okay with a dog, and she said, 'Yes.' First, she didn't want to touch him. She was sitting on that chair over there and she was really tense," Martinez said, pointing across the room.
But Martinez said the girl told her: “ ‘I don’t trust you.’ I told her that’s fine, that’s fair. ‘You don’t know me, I don’t know you. I’m here for you, but I totally get it.’ "
Shortly into the safe room interview, Martinez said Shane sat up, walked over to the girl and put his head on her lap. Pretty soon after, Martinez said the girl started talking about what she had been through. "I don't know why I'm talking so much," Martinez remembers the girl saying. "It's gotta be because he relaxed me."
Trujillo said she has also seen Shane’s impact firsthand. “[Victims] feel pressured, or they feel like this is all strange to them. They've never been in a situation like this. But you bring Shane in and it's a more relaxed feeling,” she said. Sometimes she said victims, especially children, will “give him their story instead of talking to us, because we’re all adults and using big words, but they can use their words with Shane.”
The true test of Shane’s abilities has yet to be seen, as in-person jury trials recently started after months of continuances due to COVID-19. The goal will be to have him sit at the feet of the victims when they appear before the court at the defense table or at the witness stand.
The process of getting Shane into the courtroom isn't quite as easy as it may seem either. “It's a long process because the defense attorney, our attorney and the judge have to agree on a motion to allow him to be in the courtroom with the victim,” explained Trujillo.
They have been training him for this next step by taking him into the courtroom gallery during random hearings. “He sits with us, whether it's Carla or myself, and he sits under the bench, and he just stays," she said. "It's a long time that he’s sitting there sometimes, but he handles it very well.”
Therapy dogs being used in courthouses is not a new phenomenon. Currently, there is a dog in almost every district attorney’s office in the state, and they are becoming more and more common around the country as well. Staff at the Eighth Judicial District is proud to say they started the trend in New Mexico.
“It started with the Eighth [district] with Donald [Gallegos]," Trujillo said. "He wanted to make sure that we had that funding and that aspect for the victims to have that outlet too.”
Trujillo hopes to see the program continue to expand. “From when we first started back with Sally, it's expanded immensely with everyone, and I see it expanding more… I feel like it's a great program… [the dogs] really do help. They don't just help the victims. They help the office.” Recently, Santa Fe's First Judicial District Attorney's Office go their first victim advocate dog, a lab named Judge.
These days, Shane has developed a routine around the office. In between providing cuddly, emotional support for victims, he takes turns doing the same with different members of the district attorney’s office, often ending his days in community liaison Matthew van Buren’s office.
“Around 4:30, he's had a rough day,” said Trujillo. Because of the high stress environment he works in, despite all the affection he gets, Shane “absorbs a lot of that stress too, but he loves it.”
To unwind, he enjoys playing fetch in the empty hallways, getting head pats and scratches from all the dog-loving employees, and lounging in whichever office he pleases. “He also loves his toys,” added Trujillo.
As jury trials continue in person and more of life returns to normal, Shane will have to adjust to a more full time schedule, but thanks to his intensive training and gounded temperament, he seems ready.