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Meet Ari, the support dog helping vulnerable kids in Arkansas courtrooms

Paws for Justice hosts trained canines who support kids or vulnerable adults as they share difficult or sensitive testimonies.

BENTON COUNTY, ARKANSAS, Ark. — Ari, a spirited service animal in Benton County, is helping kids and vulnerable adults share difficult testimonies in and out of the courtroom by simply sitting by their side with a loving presence.

Rebecca Petty, Ari's handler, works with Paws for Justice, a program that brings empathetic, trained canines together with handlers so those with sensitive stories can have support when speaking about their experiences.

Petty and Ari cover parts of Arkansas from Benton County all the way down to Polk and Montgomery counties, and she says the state is looking to hire more handlers around Jonesboro as well as southern Arkansas.

Petty says Arkansas courthouse emotional support dogs are trained for years. Training starts when the puppies are born, where they are taught to understand commands and connect with people. But for anybody who gets to meet him, it's plain to see that Ari is a natural.

When asked about Ari's training, Petty says, “Sometimes I'll say something and realize that 'Oh, that's a command' … so he trains me sometimes!”

Petty, who served as the executive director of the Andi Foundation for Children, in the Arkansas House of Representatives, and worked to get the courthouse emotional service dogs program passed through the legislature, says that Ari has an uncanny ability to understand people who have been deeply hurt. 

“He is very open to finding who needs him and going to that person,” she says of her furry coworker.

“We've seen a child that at first is completely unable to talk gain the confidence to testify in open court,” said Nathan Smith, the Benton County prosecutor. 

“There is just something about a dog that helps children and vulnerable people talk about some of the worst and most traumatic things that have ever happened to them,” Smith adds.

He says that usually when children visit a police station or prosecutor's office, they have lived through something terrible. "I just think it's an incredible thing to be able to give the kind of comfort that helps victims find their voice.”

When speaking about Petty, Smith said that not many in the state legislature would choose to go from that to being a dog handler. “I think that really represents just her heart for victims and what she does,” he said.

When asked about the future, Smith says the goal is to have courthouse emotional support dogs all over the state in order to hopefully be within an hour's drive from every district.

“I think every victim deserves to have the opportunity to use this program,” Smith said.

“This is a stressful place to be, but when everybody sees him, they're always so glad he's here … He's just a real love bug," Petty said.

“He can take a situation that is, by its very nature, adversarial, and really bring the temperature down,” said Smith. “Ari is valuable when speaking with victims … He helps them find their own courage to be able to talk about difficult things.”

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