This year, with all its challenges, has also given us an opportunity to pause and look back on the many people and stories from San Francisco Attorney magazine that have inspired and engaged.
In 2017, Kathleen Guthrie Woods introduced us to Nemo, San Francisco Unified Family Court’s facility dog. At the time, Nemo, having been professionally trained by Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) in Santa Rosa, was starting his new job as a courthouse dog, available to bring comfort and support to foster children and their families in court. This year’s public health crisis, with its shelter-in-place orders, court closures, and social distancing guidelines, made Nemo’s work temporarily impossible. We checked in with Court Appointed Special Advocate and Nemo’s lead handler Shelley Gottlieb to find out how they are doing.
How has Nemo been doing this year?
Shelley Gottlieb: Nemo continues to live with me. He is five years old now. This year, he’s sleeping a lot. He’s had much more downtime since COVID-19 began and the courts shut down—and he is bored. We are part of a facility dog discussion group on Facebook and know boredom is a common issue for these dogs right now, while they’re unable to work.
How has this year changed your and Nemo’s work?
Shelley Gottlieb: With Nemo unable to work, it’s important to keep up his training and exercise. Prior to COVID-19, Nemo’s regular exercise included walking home from court. Now, Nemo goes running with my partner, so we can make sure to keep Nemo at his optimal weight of sixty-four pounds. Along with staying on top of his grooming, that’s very important for his health and longevity.
Being out of work also means that Nemo requires more training because he is not getting his regular practice of opening doors, entering and exiting buildings, riding public transportation, and so forth. Nemo was originally trained with forty commands and, as a facility dog, Nemo is regularly tested and recertified by CCI.
This year, I’ve been doing a lot of in-home training to reinforce commands. For instance, we practice opening and closing drawers at home. I also walk him with his official CCI vest on. The vest tells Nemo he’s working, and it helps to reinforce his on-vest behaviors.
Tell me about the work you were doing prior to the outbreak of COVID-19.
Shelley Gottlieb: Prior to COVID-19, the program was doing great! Nemo was in court two to three times a week, sometimes more. Until February, Cynthia Dragon, Nemo’s co-handler, would take Nemo to court once every other week, and, as his primary handler, I would take him to court on other days.
Nemo is popular at the San Francisco Unified Family Court. People recognize him in the hallways, he makes people smile, and his presence at hearings instantly lowers the temperature in what is frequently an emotionally charged environment. Nemo’s calming influence helps kids in court share their difficult stories. One child answered the judge’s questions while sitting under the table with Nemo, while at a different hearing, Nemo sat in the witness box with another child. Sometimes parents request his presence at their hearings.
Sometimes, we received special requests, for instance, to take Nemo to visit children at the Edgewood Center for Children and Families in Redwood City, which provides services to youth and families in need of mental and behavioral health support.
Once, we received a special request from a judge to visit a child at an out-of-county special care facility. It was an end-of-life visit request. The child, who was on life support and has since passed away, loved animals. After Nemo and I visited, I was able to arrange continued visits with the help of another handler and dog.
All that has changed since March. At this point, we don’t know when Nemo and I can safely return to court and work.
Since its founding, CCI has graduated more than 5,000 teams, and more than 2,000 teams are active today. To learn more about CCI’s life-changing work, visit cci.org.
Read the original profile of Nemo in the Winter 2017 issue of San Francisco Attorney, available online at https://www.sfbar.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/meet-nemo.pdf