This dog gives victims the courage to speak

This dog gives victims the courage to speak

Sundae helps victims testifying in investigations and trials.

April 3, 2019 By Violaine Charest-Sigouin

Sundae is one of two dogs who have been working for the Sûreté du Québec since 2016. Her job consists of helping special squad and regional county municipality (RCM) investigators during interviews with children and adults who have lived through traumatic experiences. She also accompanies victims to the courthouse when they have to testify. “We usually get involved in sexual or major crimes,” says her master—and colleague!—Gilbert Lemelin, an investigator who supports these victims.

Sundae, a three-and-a-half-year-old Labernese, completed the same Mira Foundation training as service dogs used to assist youngsters with autism spectrum disorder. She was specifically chosen for this police job for her calm and obedience. “Testimonies can take several hours. Sundae has to be present in the courtroom and not move a muscle the entire time,” explains Lemelin. The dog's main job is to comfort the victims and, sometimes, her very presence ensures that they actually testify.

A presence that changes everything
Our investigator brings up the case of an adolescent girl, the victim of sexual assault who, when she first entered the courthouse, had to be taken away by ambulance due to extreme anxiety. When she returned for a second hearing, the dog's presence changed everything. “As soon as she stepped into the prosecutor's office, the young girl knelt on the floor to pat Sundae. That day, she gave a powerful testimony,” he remembers.

Lemelin and Sundae are a team that does not go unnoticed at their workplace. The two “police officers” are based in Quebec City, but they cover the entire province, including communities in the Far North. “Our days are very varied: we can be travelling, we can be working in the office, or attending an interview or a trial,” he adds.

A great deal of discipline
When the dog is at the police station or at the courthouse, she is not allowed to interact with her colleagues or enjoy pats from passersby. All her attention must be focused solely on one person: the victim. Using verbal cues, Lemelin shows her which person she has to help, but very often, Sundae instinctively knows who that person is. Although she's a very well-disciplined dog, she becomes playful and affectionate as soon as she gets to work with someone: she doesn't hesitate to place a paw on the person's thigh and will sometimes give them a little lick. There's absolutely no doubt that Sundae loves her job!

A happy dog
When at home, Sundae is a dog like any other who loves to play with family members and guests. However, people aren't allowed to throw her a ball. “Some witnesses bring a stress ball into the courtroom,” Lemelin explains. “We wouldn't want the dog to go running after it if the witness drops it!”

Even though Sundae belongs to the Sûreté du Québec, Lemelin treats her like his own. “She's almost always with me, whether at work or at home, to the point where she's practically an extension of me. I often talk to her, even though I don't expect her to answer me back,” he laughs.

Our investigator had to convince a lot of people in the police community that the dog's presence was beneficial to the victims. It was “quite a challenge” for him. But one that was well worth the effort, if you believe the stories of those involved—like a young boy who recently wrote the police to tell them that his visit to the courthouse would have been much more difficult without Sundae there. Not to mention that, for Lemelin, counting on a colleague like Sundae is “an outright joy!”

Gilbert Lemelin and Sundae
Photo credit : Sûreté du Québec

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