Officials in Dakota County are training the first therapy dog in Minnesota to formally support abuse victims during criminal justice proceedings.

In January, victims outreach coordinator Stacie Burke of the Apple Valley Police Department will begin dispatching Ranger to assist victims during court hearings or interviews with police. Ranger will rotate through Dakota County courtrooms and will also be available on a case-by-case basis to support victims in the surrounding community.

The Hastings-based 360 Communities' Lewis House and the Apple Valley police will primarily work with Ranger, who previously helped support students after the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre. Specialists at Pawsitive Perspective Assistance Dogs (PawPADS) in Lakeville trained Ranger, a five-year-old Labrador-golden retriever mix that most recently assisted a wounded veteran.

Assistance dogs are most commonly used for people with disabilities and, more recently, for veterans who are coping with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Research on the psychological effects of assistance dogs for abuse victims in the courtroom is limited, but other similar programs have sprouted up in courtrooms across the country over the past decade.

Assistance dogs have been shown to help alleviate anxiety during testimony for victims, especially children, according to Linda Ball, executive director of PawPADS. Ball helped train Ranger for his new duties and took him to court on Thursday as a trial run.

"He was more of an unobtrusive helpmate," Ball said of the dog's first day in court. "I think he's going to have an impact on all of the support people and the support system, as well as the other [courthouse] staff."

In Hastings, the program started when the 360 Communities nonprofit was hiring for a victim outreach position, according to Ann Sheridan, director of violence prevention. Sheridan coordinated training of both Ranger and the victim coordinator, Burke.

"I know how [a dog] contains a mood in someone and calms people down," Sheridan said.

A similar program in Arizona's Maricopa County started six years ago and now has three dogs. The dogs would have caseloads of about 10 victims a week. They work with children, adults, the elderly and victims of sexual abuse, stalking and domestic violence.

"Being in a courtroom is not a familiar place for [children]. Testifying can be a terrifying thing for a young child, especially in something that has been painful," said Amanda Jacinto, spokeswoman for the Maricopa county attorney. "Having this calming kind of force in the room with them can really help."

Natalie Daher • 612-673-1775