Dog provides support at Veterans Recovery Court in Ann Arbor

by Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

If staff members at the Michigan 15th Judicial District courthouse in Ann Arbor are seeing spots before their eyes – it’s Dellma the Dalmatian, providing emotional support to participants in the Veterans Recovery Court.

In short order, Dellma has become quite a courthouse canine celebrity.

“Dellma gets very excited when we drive into Ann Arbor on the court days,” says her owner, Kathy Schillaci. “The officers on the door give her a big welcome and usually pet her or say hello on the way in. to the building. All of the court staff has been very friendly towards her. She gets attention from the officers in the courtroom, and the prosecutor pets her.

“A judge from down the hall even invited us into her courtroom before court. She wanted to meet Dellma, who snuck up onto the bench – the judge took a picture of her looking over the top of the desk!”

Among a small number of therapy dogs across the country specifically working with veterans, Dellma visits the court with Schillaci once a month as part of the Canine Advocacy Program, a nonprofit organization using therapy dogs to reduce stress in court situations.

Founded by Dan Cojanu in 2008, and based in Oakland County, CAP originally sent dogs to court to help child victims; and has expanded to help veterans. Dellma and her canine colleagues –  including “Rylan” and “Spitfire” in Novi, “Tuesday” in Redford, “Sparty” in Waterford and “Holli” in Calhoun County – were the first in the U.S. to provide support services to veterans involved in treatment courts.

Schillaci, who retired in 2012 after 33 years as a cardiac cath lab nurse at St. Mary Mercy Hospital in Livonia, joined CAP the following year. She and Dellma were doing obedience and agility training at Wolverine Dog Training Club in Farmington Hills, where Schillaci had trained her previous Dalmatian, Stormy, who died at the age of 14.

“Dellma was a handful when she was a puppy, so we went to puppy school,” Schillaci says.  “She’s very smart and settled down after a couple of years. She seemed to enjoy the training sessions so we kept it up and tried a few shows.”

After Dellma, who has titles in Obedience and Agility, became certified as a Therapy Dog, Schillaci had hoped to take her to St. Mary Mercy Hospital but as an employee was unable to also volunteer with a Therapy Dog. A fellow dog-owner at the Wolverine Club suggested the 15th District Veterans Recovery Court in Ann Arbor where Judge Christopher Easthope had requested a canine support dog.

Cojanu visited Schillaci and Dellma at their Garden City home; then Scillaci observed a session at the veterans court in Novi, before taking Dellma to the courthouse in Ann Arbor for an “audition.”
Dellma took to her new role like a duck – or rather a Dalmatian – to water.

“Dellma fit right in,” Schillaci says.  “Dan told me to take her off the lead and let her go in the courtroom, and – as Dan put it – she worked the room ‘like a politician.’ She really enjoys visiting with everyone. She seems to be able to pick out the people who are very nervous or apprehensive about being in court. She really makes a difference – the veterans have thanked me for bringing her to court and some of them bring her treats.”

 On the rare occasions a veteran is nervous of dogs, Schillaci has to tell a disappointed Dellma to leave that person alone.

“Dellma listens well to me,” she says. “But she keeps an eagle eye on me while we’re in court – she makes sure she knows where I am.”

Dellma even gave a female veteran a canine cuddle.

“Dellma put her paws on the veteran’s lap, I told her to get down but the woman didn’t mind. I told her she was going to get a hug from Dellma, which she did! She asked me what to do when Dellma put her paws on her shoulders – I told her to hug her back and the veteran did, and then Dellma got down.”

Dellma, who has been with Schillaci since a pup of 8 weeks, is still a keen “pupil” at dog school. In her weekly agility class, she does agility runs with jumps and contact objects such the dog walk, teeter-totter, A-frame and tunnels. In obedience class, she and Schillaci train for obedience trials using skills Dellma will have to demonstrate at dog shows.

But outside her  “classroom” and the courtroom, Dellma goofs off like any other 6-year-old. Fun loving and playful, she revels in her morning playtime with Schillaci’s husband, and enjoys taking walks in the neighborhood, and romping in the snow.

“When we go to our cottage in the summer I get no rest until we take our 2-mile walk around the lake,” Schillaci says. “She has to stop and say hello to everyone on the way. She gets along with my daughter’s dogs very well, they all romp and play.”

A purebred Dalmatian, Dellma is not considered “conformation worthy” by American Kennel Club standards; a dog’s conformation – overall appearance and structure – is an indication of its ability to produce quality puppies. Dellma was born with a cropped tail – about three-quarters of a normal length – and with cornflower blue eyes.

“The blue-eyed bitches tend to have deaf puppies so I can’t breed her but I really only wanted a companion pet,” Schillaci says. “For me she is perfect!”

Dellma’s unusual name means “Ever Good,” or “Noble Protector” in Celtic, and “Hospitable” in Indian.

“She is ever good, the best dog I’ve ever had,” Schillaci says. “She prances when she walks – she must think she’s noble! She’s hospitable, very friendly and social. She loves people and visiting with everyone. When we take our neighborhood walks she likes to stop and visit with people especially the kids.”

Schillaci would encourage dog owners to get involved with veterans courts or other special programs.

“The dogs are very perceptive and know who needs their love and attention,” she says. “The veterans really do enjoy having the dog there. All the sacrifices that veterans have made for us, we should be willing to make a couple for them. I talk a lot about what the veteran’s court does and how much good it does for the veterans. I’ve had several veterans say thbest thing that happened to them was getting arrested and sentenced to veteran’s court, it helped them to get their life back on track and receive the treatment they really needed.”

Dellma and Schillaci take more than love to the courthouse. A member of the Nine Patchers Quilt Guild, Schillaci creates quilts for veterans graduating from the program.

“They are wounded in many other ways besides just physically, they deserve a quilt after all their hard work complying with the requirements of the court,” she says. “I love to see the changes the veterans go through during their time in the program. They’ve worked so hard and come so far.

“I’ve been able to put both my loves together and do some good – my love for my dog, sharing Dellma’s love with others and my love of quilting.”