Rikki dies: Therapy dog helped change Florida law

Published: Nov. 1, 2016 at 6:25 PM EDT
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By: Julie Montanaro

May 11, 2017

A therapy dog credited with changing the law in Florida dies just one day after a new law is inked by the governor.

Rikki the golden retriever died Wednesday. She and partner Chuck Mitchell spent ten years visiting hospitals, schools and courtrooms.

Rikki was one of the first dogs in the nation allowed to accompany children to court as they testified about violence and abuse.

"Rikki was a pioneer," State Attorney Jack Campbell said. "This dog's going to have repercussions throughout this country on how we deal with children who are forced into our criminal justice system."

Rikki even walked the halls of the capitol this session as advocates pushed successfully for more therapy dogs in court.

Many years and many miles for the rescue dog from Hurricane Katrina.

"Rikki was a great thing that came from a terrible circumstance and she constantly walked back in to terrible circumstances and made those situations brighter by her life," Campbell said.

Campbell wore a tie to work Thursday with Rikki's picture on it as a tribute. He says he gets calls from people in jurisdictions and states all over the country asking about introducing therapy dogs in their courts.

By: Julie Montanaro

May 10, 2017

A therapy dog credited with helping to change the law in Florida has died.

Rikki the golden retriever named passed away Wednesday, prosecutors tell us.

She retired last year after serving as a therapy dog in schools, rehab hospitals and courtrooms for nearly 10 years.

Rikki and her therapy partner Chuck Mitchell are credited with changing Florida law to allow therapy dogs to accompany children in court to testify in abuse cases.

State Attorney Jack Campbell calls Rikki "a hero."

"Rikki helped countless victims through unspeakable tragedy," Campbell said. "I only hope all our prosecutors and law enforcement is as successful in helping victims as this dog was in her short career."

By: Julie Montanaro

November 1, 2016

Rikki is no ordinary golden retriever.

She and the man on the other end of her leash helped to re-write the law in Florida.

Rikki is a therapy dog who has helped adult patients in pain and child victims in court.

Rikki is retiring after 10 years and nearly 25-thousand nose to nose sessions.

Rikki is right at home at the Leon County Courthouse. She's been coming to work here for 10 years and gets paid in carrots.

(sound of crunching carrots)

Rikki is a therapy dog who has helped dozens of children walk through daunting courtroom doors and take a seat on the witness stand. Children who have witnessed violent crimes or been victims of unspeakable abuse.

Now Rikki is retiring.

"I was overwhelmed with emotion,” victim advocate Susan Parmalee said. “She has helped so many children and given them strength and she has the compassion and she's just there for these kids at the most difficult time of their life and the dog is there to help them through all of that. It's like a happy thing in amongst having to talk about a very difficult thing and a yucky thing."

"You're putting these terrific animals with these traumatized people and it's helping them find their voice so they can tell their story,” Rikki’s owner and partner Chuck Mitchell said. “I mean what’s not to like about that?”

Perhaps Rikki too knows what it's like to feel afraid and alone.

Her owner fled Hurricane Katrina and Rikki wound up in foster care at the Tallahassee home of Chuck and Patty Mitchell.

They soon discovered the dog knew no strangers and sensed suffering.

Mitchell - a two time CEO - ultimately quit his job to follow his dog's lead.

Rikki nuzzled patients at the Tallahassee Memorial Rehabilitation Center at least once a week.

"I think it's a great help. If you're dog people particularly … and I don't know how you couldn't be a dog person,"said Nelson Kraeft as he paused from his physical therapy to pet Rikki.

"Everybody here is in pain,” Mitchell said, “and we try to be a distraction from that pain and a motivation for them to do their exercises."

"I think it boosts your morale right off the bat,” patient Taylor Witheril said. “So it's 10:30 in the morning and I already have a big smile on my face!"

Rikki also made herself at home in the library of Cornerstone Learning Community each week. Listening to children who struggle to read.

"I just like reading to her,” Rick Bracey said.

"It just feels comfortable," Raelynn Bevis said.

"They stumble sometimes, they may feel nervous, but as long as she is here, whether they are touching her or not, she's calming them,” Patty Mitchell said. "She's making it a comfortable, non-judgmental place to practice reading aloud."

"He's super cuddly. He actually listens," Dracen Powell said.

"And since you started reading with Rikki do you think you've become a better reader?"

"Yeah I do. I really do," he said.

Rikki's only reward for it all? Unbridled affection and a seemingly endless supply of baby carrots.

(sound of carrots crunching)

It was a special bond between Rikki and a little girl that forever changed Florida law. Rikki sat beside the five year old as she answered questions about an accused child molester.

"This was the first case in the state of Florida - or anywhere I really think - where there was a dog in a deposition,” prosecutor John Hutchins said. “I just remember that little girl petting the dog and holding the dog and squeezing the dog a couple times a little too tight probably ... but Rikki was just great."

Yet on the day the little girl went to court, Rikki wasn't allowed inside.

Chuck - and the victim advocates with whom he works - lobbied the legislature to change that.

In 2011, therapy dogs were granted access to help little ones face their abusers in court.

Did you ever imagine the two of you would end up changing the laws of the state of Florida?

"No. No. I never went into this thinking about any of that," Mitchell said.

"And why retire now?"

"Whew ... Well ... She's starting to get some issues … give me a minute,” Mitchell said as he choked back emotions.

"It's been the hardest decision I've ever had to make,” he said. “It's been the best job I ever had … and I really thank her for taking me places I wouldn't have gone and enabling us to help people I would have never dreamed we would have been able to help ... and to be the ripple in a pond that started something that's going to continue and outlive us both."

Therapy dogs are now used in almost every judicial circuit in Florida and more than half of the states across the country.

Mitchell says Rikki will now enjoy her golden years being a "couch potato" at home. Mitchell says he hopes to eventually find another extraordinary dog and continue serving as an animal therapy volunteer.

Mitchell is one of 174 volunteers who work with the Tallahassee Memorial Animal Therapy program.

Director Stephanie Perkins says most of the therapy animals are dogs, but there are also therapy cats, horses, parrots and even a goat.

“We visit over 60 facilities in the Big Bend area,” Perkins said, “including healthcare facilities, schools, libraries and the courts.”

Perkins says all teams are screened, evaluated and attend eight weeks of training. They must be re-evaluated every two years.

“Numerous clinical trials and studies show that petting a dog for as little as one minute lowers cortisol (stress hormone) and prompts the production of oxytocin (a feel good stress-busting hormone) and lowers blood pressure,” she said.