Cass County Courts welcome newest therapy dog

Published 8:13 am Thursday, March 28, 2019

CASSOPOLIS — Inside of a crowded courtroom Tuesday afternoon, Cass County’s newest therapy dog, Baxter, raised his right paw and pledged to uphold the United States Constitution and to provide love, attention and comfort to the people of Cass County.

In a ceremony overseen by Cass County Circuit Court Judge Mark Herman, Baxter was sworn in as the Cass County Court’s newest employee. As a court therapy dog, Baxter’s primary duty will be to provide comfort to traumatized victims and witnesses, attending hearings with adult and mental health treatment courts, and to participate in interviews with Cass County Friend of the Court, according to his handlers.

“He has this calming effect and this instant connection with people that is something only a dog can really do,” said Baxter’s handler, Deputy Tim Gondeck, of the Cass County’s Sheriff’s Office. He has raised and trained Baxter, now 18 months old, since he was seven weeks old. “This is a great sense of accomplishment to see [Baxter] sworn in. I had the opportunity to take him from literally ground zero and all the way through training to here.”

While Baxter’s ceremony Tuesday may have been something new for Cass County, his experience was far from unique. Courtroom therapy dogs are springing up all over the country — including inside the Cass County Prosecutor’s Office, which recently acquired Belle, a therapy Golden Retriever. The surge in popularity of therapy dogs is in part what inspired Gondeck, who purchased Baxter and his training with his own money, to propose that the Cass County Sheriff’s Office employ a therapy dog, he said.

The most prominent advocates of courtroom therapy dogs say that canine advocates help victims come out of their shells and provide them a much-needed comfort as they go through the interviewing process.

“[The dogs] can really help someone who is stressed and bring their stress levels down,” said Michelle Steigmeyer, owner of Indiana K-9 Learning Center, a facility that has trained countless police and therapy dogs in the Michiana region. “The great thing about therapy dogs is that they don’t judge. You hear about the kids that struggle to read — they are uncomfortable, embarrassed, maybe they stutter. But then, they sit down with a dog, which doesn’t judge, and then magically, they start reading. It’s pretty amazing what [therapy dogs] can do.”

For Cass County Sheriff Richard Behnke, it was seeing Berrien County’s therapy dog, Mr. Weeber, in action that convinced him that courtroom therapy dogs would be a valuable asset in Cass County. During the swearing-in Tuesday, Behnke recalled seeing Mr. Weeber provide comfort to those who had been in the Berrien County Courthouse following a shooting that took place July 11, 2016, in the building that left two bailiffs dead and one sheriff’s deputy injured.

“Mr. Weeber was a great asset in the grieving process. People were going up to him, hugging him and getting that relief,” Behnke said. “After seeing a dog in action in Berrien County following a very tragic event, I thought it would be very beneficial, not just for employees but for victims, to have a dog in the courthouse for a moment of relief and therapy.”

With the support of the sheriff and other county officials behind him, Baxter was determined ready for duty by Judge Herman. 

Following Tuesday’s ceremony, Gondeck watched with a smile as Baxter licked the face of a small child, who giggled with delight. Already, Gondeck said Baxter is doing what he is supposed to be doing — bringing joy and comfort to those he interacts with.

“I’m looking forward to a long career — for Baxter to have a long career,” Gondeck said. “I know that he will be able to provide his services for many, many years to come.”