A new rehabilitation program involving dogs and sexual assault victims in Orange County was introduced Friday.
The nonprofit Pets Are Wonderful Support, or PAWS, organization is partnering with the Orange County District Attorney's Office and using both therapy dogs and rescue dogs to help victims impacted by sexual violence.
On Thursday, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas told the story of a boy who was sexually abused at a young age and how a dog helped him find the courage to testify against his attacker.
"The Goldens [Retriever] had him at 'woof.' The boy lit up," Rackauckas said. "The Goldens made bearable the uncomfortable experience of having to relive the abuse."
That incident sparked this partnership between the DA's office and the Orange County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The goal is to foster an environment that would make it easier for victims to testify and to cope with their situation.
The partnership between the nonprofit and the DA's office will be referred to as PANDA, or PAWS Assist the Needs of the District Attorney.
"Dogs have the amazing capability of bringing out emotion in people and sensing their needs," said PAWS program director Kevin Marlin. "They can provide a therapeutic value that no other medication or traditional type of therapy can do."
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Marlin said PAWS began in 1987 and currently includes 125 dogs that visit around 25 facilities per month. Some of the locations include health care and senior hospice care, mental health, recovery drug and alcohol institutions as well as children's facilities.
"A lot of the places that we visit, people have had to leave their pets behind so they miss them. When we walk through that door with our dogs, the room just lights up."
Aside from having specific therapy dogs, PAWS also welcomes volunteer dogs to help out with their visits. However, the dogs must be one year or older and must have been owned by the same owner for more than six months.