- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 21, 2014

GRAND HAVEN, Mich. (AP) - Stephanie Stoddard’s schedule is quite a bit busier these days, especially since she’s added a four-legged colleague to her courtroom routine.

In addition to her own tasks as a victim advocate for the Ottawa County Prosecutor’s Office, Stoddard is managing the schedule of a 2 1/2 -year-old black Labrador named Sydney, according to The Grand Rapids Press ( http://bit.ly/1wMPJ8R ).

No longer does Stoddard check just her own schedule as she starts her day. She finds herself constantly thinking: “What’s the dog’s schedule?”

Sydney is already quite popular around Ottawa County as the newest member of the victim’s advocate team. In August, she joined a growing number of dogs across the state who have become canine advocates, working with prosecutors around Michigan to assist victims moving through the often emotionally-wrenching process of participating in criminal cases as they move through the courts.

Stoddard was assigned as Sydney’s handler and is delighted to have her canine partner.

“She’s been great. We’re very, very lucky to get her,” Stoddard said. “We’ve had a lot of support. Everyone just loves her.”

The Michigan Canine Advocacy Program was started in 2010 by Dan Cojanu, who spent decades working with children in Oakland County courts. Cojanu had seen some terrible cases that put fear on children’s faces before they testified in court. He could only imagine what that feeling must be like, on top of what the child had already experienced as a victim of crime.

He started the canine program in his retirement as a way to reach out to children and other victims of violent crime, to offer them comfort in times they need it most.

These animal advocates sit with victims as they are questioned by investigators, and later, as they testify in court. They’re not only making it easier for victims, but for authorities working to solve crimes and prosecute criminals.

Each of the dogs has undergone training as a guide through Leader Dogs for the Blind, a Rochester Hills-based organization that trains Seeing Eye dogs. For one reason or another, the advocate dogs either did not make it through the program or could not successfully complete tasks once paired with a human partner.

Still, they have a skill set that makes them perfect for the canine advocacy program, Cojanu says.

The animals know what it means to behave and to work at the appropriate times, and have an innate sense of understanding human need.

Dogs are provided to the CAP program free of charge through Leader Dogs for the Blind, but the handler foots the animal’s living costs. The only cost to individual counties is a liability policy that is similar to that of a police dog.

Ottawa County Prosecutor Ron Frantz saw a presentation Cojanu gave in spring 2013 and knew right away he wanted to secure a canine to help his team along the Lakeshore.

“We immediately saw the benefit and signed up,” he said.

Frantz recognizes the trauma victims undergo as their day in court comes. Testifying is still a necessary task. But he wants victims to understand his team is doing everything in their power to come alongside victims and help them through.

Sydney furthers that mission, he said. And at just 2 1/2 years old, he hopes she’ll be part of the team for a decade to come.

Sydney now lives with Stoddard and works full-time with her throughout Ottawa County. The two went through training with Cojanu, and Sydney quickly acclimated to being in a courthouse setting.

While Stoddard is in her office, Sydney sleeps in a dog bed close by.

When Sydney isn’t actively working, she carries around a stuffed duck, her favorite toy. It was given to Stoddard by co-workers during a “doggie shower” earlier this year.

Sydney is attentive and silent in the courtroom when she’s working. She is trained not to get up for noises or any action going on nearby. She recently laid on the floor of the courtroom gallery with a victim’s family during a probable cause hearing for a Holland area murder suspect. Her presence offered much-needed comfort.

“It eased that family’s tension,” Stoddard said. “It just lowers the anxiety level.”

Frantz expects Sydney will work with the Children’s Advocacy Center as child victims of sexual assault undergo forensic questioning.

Sydney is busy making friends in Ottawa County. She has business cards, Stoddard said, and is welcoming Facebook friends. You can find her by searching for “Sydney Canine.”

Elsewhere, Cojanu is busy these days as the canine advocate program continues to grow. In the past year, Eaton, Berrien and Shiawassee counties have all welcomed dogs. Calhoun County recently welcomed a canine, Holli, to the prosecutor’s team there. Cojanu was recently training in Muskegon County, working with a dog named Oscar who is assigned to work with the victim witness unit in that county.

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Information from: The Grand Rapids Press, http://www.mlive.com/grand-rapids

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