Millas drama trial: service dogs in court

December 14, 2017 in Millas (Pyrénées-Orientales): a TER hit a school car at a level crossing, causing the death of six schoolchildren. 17 other teenagers are injured. The tragedy at a national detention and the trial which opened on September 19, 2022, at the Marseille criminal court, almost five years later, should rekindle the deep trauma experienced by the families. To free the actors of this disaster to speak and provide them with unconditional support, two specialized dogs were dispatched to the scene. Asked by Science and FutureFlorian Auffret, project manager in research and development at Handi’chiens (an association whose objective is to train and provide assistance dogs free of charge), talks about their role.

Sciences et Avenir: How many dogs did you provide for this trial?

Florian Auffret: The two dogs on site were trained by Handi’chiens, which is currently the only association that provides legal assistance dogs in France. She gave the association “France Victims 66” Ouchi, as for Rancho, he was assigned to the judicial court of Nîmes and is guarded by the firefighters of Gard. During such events, it is the referents who are then called upon: in this case, a firefighter and a member of the association. They are the ones who intervene on the spot and who know the commands, after having been trained by Handi’chiens.

What are the roles of these two dogs?

We had a reflection on how best to support the victims of the Millas tragedy. We finally decided to use two dogs of different breeds and colors. Ouchi is 5 years old and a golden retriever. He accompanies the victims. Rancho is two and a half years old and a black Labrador. He accompanies during the trial Nadine Oliveira, the driver of the vehicle who is the defendant (the investigation determined that it was obviously her inattention which improved the accident, editor’s note).

Credit: NICOLAS TUCAT / AFP

What requests do they respond to?

The job of dogs is to facilitate speech by soothing people who benefit from their presence. Even Ms. Oliveira is in a difficult emotional state. For example, dogs will position themselves next to people, put their heads on their thighs. They will be totally available for them. They can still have access to the dog when they leave the court, on the forecourt. Then Rancho and Ouchi return to their referent.

Will they be solicited throughout the trial?

Ouchi will be present for two days and Rancho will be present during the three days of audition of Ms Oliveira. If justice considers that their presence is essential, then they could be brought back.

How were they trained?

These dogs have completed a service dog course that lasts two years. They are placed in a family from the age of 2 months to 18 months. Afterwards, they enter a training center and are selected according to their skills. A legal service dog should be naturally empathetic and calm.

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