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Stress-Seeking Dog Headed to Lackawanna County Court

SCRANTON — We all know that dogs like to sniff, but that sense of smell is being used in some surprising ways. Prosecutors in Lackawanna County hope to ma...
nala lacka stress dog

SCRANTON -- We all know that dogs like to sniff, but that sense of smell is being used in some surprising ways.

Prosecutors in Lackawanna County hope to make their court the first in the country to use a special type of service dog that seeks out stress.

Wyatt the Rhodesian ridgeback was sniffing prosecutors and staff from the Lackawanna County district attorney's office. The service dog has been specially trained to seek out stress and help people feel better.

After working the room, Wyatt homes in on Jennifer Davis and settles next to her leg.

"So out of this group, you are probably the most stressed, for whatever reason."

Trainer Janice Wolfe points out her stress dogs can comfort humans in a number of ways, from simply sitting with them to a full embrace, depending on what a person needs and feels comfortable with.

"They can kind of direct the dog where they want that pressure."

So how does a dog use its nose to find a feeling?

Wolfe teaches her hounds to home in on the smell of cortisol, a hormone the body produces under stress, triggering a fight or flight response.

Lackawanna County Assistant District Attorney Gene Talerico read about how Wolfe was using her dogs in New Jersey at a school for kids with special needs.

"As I looked at that and all of the triggers that happen every day in that school, it is really what happens when anyone comes to court," said Talerico.

He wondered if the same sort of service dog could make it easier for victims of child abuse and sexual assault when they make their way through the legal system.

"It is very difficult subject matter and there are not really a whole lot of tools we have."

While other courts use therapy dogs, having prosecutors work with a cortisol-sniffing stress dog is something new. Talerico believes Lackawanna County will be the first place to try.

"Gene called me and he said, 'I love what you guys do, and I think it's amazing, and could you possibly train a service dog with cortisol for the courthouse?'" said Janice Wolfe, CEO of United K9 Professionals.

Wolfe liked the idea, believing that a stress dog could help make court less traumatic for victims, especially kids.

The child will hopefully be healed quicker and more fully because it's not being re-traumatized during a court hearing.

Wolfe, who also breeds the dogs, looks for puppies that can smell their way to their mother before their eyes open.

Nala fit the bill.

Detective Michelle Mancuso was selected to be her handler and began a yearlong training program.

"What has been the most challenging thing?"

"My confidence. I have to have my confidence so the dog will have confidence in me," Mancuso said.

For now, Nala's getting familiar with the county offices and courthouse, and soon she will start living with Mancuso.

"Nala is expected to start working in the spring. The plan is to have her with victims when they testify on the witness stand."

"Something revolutionary, not only for here, but for other offices in other places," said Talerico.

Nala probably doesn't realize she's a pioneer, but the hope is that she will soon show a new way, that man's best friend can help victims get justice.

The initial cost of the program was $15,000. Some of that money was forfeited by a sex offender who was prosecuted in Lackawanna County.

A donor has also offered to cover the cost of Nala's food.