NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NC (WECT) - The New Hanover County Courthouse now has a special four-legged addition to their team.
They recently received Potter, a facility therapy dog.
Potter's job is to make the courtroom a less threatening place, especially for people who have to testify.
District Attorney Ben David said Potter will wear many hats in the courthouse but he will be used specifically in the family violence unit, child abuse cases, and child sex offense trials.
"We believe that this is going to be a good bridge for them to be able to put down their guard a little bit as we get to know them and have to tell their stories in a courtroom," David said. "But also to make this a less threatening place because we need their strength and their courage when they testify and when they tell their stories for themselves. So that's going to happen in all sorts of cases. Particularly in our family violence unit and specifically in child abuse cases and child sex offense trials. We believe that Potter will really step up and be a wonderful addition to this office."
Paws 4 People has trained Potter for this role since the moment he was born. He spent about four months at the Paws 4 People campus before he was moved to a West Virginia prison where carefully-screened inmates helped with his training.
"It was a magical day to be able to go into a prison and have this dog pick me," David said. "And to meet the guys who have been living with him for months, and for them to say, 'You know, we're cheering for you and for Potter, we want the good that we have put into this dog to be used for the kids who have been hurt, for the victims and the witnesses who are going to be in that courthouse,' I think even the guys in prison recognize that I have a job to do and that's doing justice. That doesn't mean convicting at all cost. It means recognizing the humanity in every single person and sometimes it takes a dog to make you recognize the humanity in others."
When Potter is not with the district attorney, he will be with his legal assistant, Emma Werkiser. Werkiser is in charge of handling Potter while he interacts with victims.
"When they come into our office, it's hard for them to do," Werkiser said. "So he'll be a really great support for them. Something that's sweet and soft and something that they can really bond with to help ease this really hard thing that they're having to deal with."
Werkiser and David are both scheduled to complete 50 hours of training with Potter and Paws 4 People.
Paws 4 People trainers Kyria Henry and Kaylie Miller said that this is one of the more difficult roles in training a dog because he will have to interact with thousands of people every year.
"He has to have the personality and he has to be very social with various demographics, a lot of different ages," Henry said. "Being comfortable in a lot of different environments that he will need to go in like schools, out in the community for community awareness and outreach and also in the offices and courtrooms. So that's a pretty high level of training variance that we have to work on."
For each case, Potter must be approved by the judge before he is allowed to be in the courtroom during the trial.
"We don't want to create an unfair environment where the jury is bonding with the dog more than with the attorneys in the case or obviously the witnesses who have to testify," David said. "It's obviously up to the judges on an individual basis to decide what's appropriate in their courtroom."
David said Potter has already been in a couple of high profile cases and he has preformed excellent so far.
Potter is the first facility dog in North Carolina but David hopes every courthouse in the state will eventually have one as well.