In Nîmes, a dog in the courtroom

The meeting takes place before the court of Nîmes. That day, 16-year-old Laura* meets Rancho. This young black Labrador will accompany her to the trial of her father whom she accuses of incest. The teenager must first bond through play. “Fetches”, “sat”, “to sleep”, “barks”she says to her short-lived companion. “He looks nice, I like him!”smiles Laura.

“I did not expect at all to be accompanied by a dog in court. It was the judge who offered it to me so that I would be more comfortable at trial. I will think about petting the dog and do not look at the accused”, explains the girl. She clutches the red leash when her father enters the courtroom hall. “She hasn’t seen her father for a long time, it stresses her out, so she turns her back on him and focuses on the dog.”describes his lawyer.

Rancho leaving the courtroom of the Nîmes court, after a trial on an incest case
Rancho leaving the courtroom of the Nîmes court, after a trial on an incest case

© Radio France
– Mathilde Vinceneux

Master Florence Espinouse confides that she first considered this dog as “a gimmick”. “I do not believe it, she breathes, but it must be recognized that it is beneficial for these victims who live a very difficult moment during the confrontation with their attacker”. To best help the teenager, Rancho is guided by his referents, two firefighters from the barracks of Saint-Gilles (Gard).

From a distance, with silent hand gestures, Captain Nicolas Baro tells Rancho what to do. “At times, he looks at me and I can tell him to stay a little longer or to go to bed for example. Of course, in the middle of the hearing, we are not going to talk”, he explains. The court bell rang. The judges take their places and Rancho lies down at Laura’s feet, in front of the plaintiffs’ bench. The firefighter watches him from the back of the room.

An emotional crutch to free speech

The Labrador presses his head against Laura when she begins to cry, while the president questions her father and describes the gestures of the sexual assault. The dog comes several times to comfort her before finally falling asleep and even snoring softly during the defense argument. After more than three hours of hearing, Rancho is exhausted. Laura hands him a candy as he leaves the room. “He was really present even though he was sleeping. He felt that there were a lot of emotions, he looked at me every time I cried”says the girl.

“He absorbed a lot of stress and that’s what tires him the most.“, analyzes Captain Nicolas Baro. The master must pay attention to the signs that could indicate a malaise in the animal. Sudden dandruff on his black hair, moans, heavy breathing, “so many lines not to cross”, summarizes the firefighter. Rancho’s schedule is also arranged. He does not work more than three days a week, by order of the magistrates.

“It’s the mascot”

The training of this gifted dog, worth 17,000 euros, and the costs of food, care and transport, are entirely covered by associations, in particular France Victimes and the Royal Canin Foundation. He is housed at the fire station. It therefore costs nothing in court, where everyone knows it. A carpet and toys were even made available to him at the secretariat of the presidency. “It’s the mascot“, summarizes Véronique Compan, the deputy prosecutor of Nîmes.

The magistrate ensures that the returns are very positive on the presence of Rancho. The Labrador has been used in particular to accompany children indoors. “Melanie“. This is where the hearings of minors take place before the gendarmes or the police in cases of sexual violence. His presence allows the victims to speak. “It’s beneficial for everyone since it helps the victim and it also helps the magistrates who, as a result, collect elements that could be missing”, observes Véronique Compan.

But Rancho doesn’t just help victims. He can also go to the other side of the bar and accompany the defendants. Help them to talk, to confess too perhaps. The young Labrador was the very first dog to accompany a defendant. It was at the trial of the Millas bus accident which caused the death of six college students. Rancho laid his head on the driver’s lap as she was questioned at length by the Marseille court.

In view of the success of the experience in Nîmes but also in Cahors, Nevers, Angers, Strasbourg and Orléans, other courts have requested to benefit from the presence of legal assistance dogs. Seven additional Labradors are expected to enter service by 2025.

*Name has been changed to preserve the teen’s anonymity.

Rancho is guided by referent firefighters from the Caserne de Saint-Gilles (Gard)
Rancho is guided by referent firefighters from the Caserne de Saint-Gilles (Gard)

© Radio France
– Mathilde Vinceneux

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