A unique program in Santa Maria is enabling prosecutors to relieve stress outside the courtroom and adoptable dogs to escape the shelter for a few hours. 

The DA Dogs program -- the first of its kind in the state -- is a team effort between the District Attorney's Office and the Santa Maria Valley Humane Society with the goal of engaging the community in animal welfare and advocating for adoption. 

After reading an article about the new Humane Society director, Sean Hawkins, Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley reached out to tour the facility and discuss a possible partnership.

"It's magnificent," Dudley said of the shelter located at 1687 W. Stowell Road. "Then I told (Hawkins) I knew some dogs in the area were being taken out for runs, walks by other organizations, and I wanted my office to do the same." 

"Without missing a beat, Sean said, 'We'll bring the dogs to you,''' Dudley said.

Thus began the DA Dogs program, where staffers enjoy some sunshine and reduce stress by walking some of the shelter dogs on their lunch break. 

On Friday, near the Bowling Lawn behind the courthouse grounds, five staff members from the DA's Office teamed up at noon with a pooch for some exercise. The aim of the program is to bring anywhere between five to 11 adoptable, high-energy dogs to the courthouse on Fridays to exercise with the District Attorney's Office staff. 

Each dog sports a vest with Adopt Me printed on it, which helps them gain exposure to the public, Hawkins said. 

"In addition, we're teaching them manners, skills on how to appropriately behave in a new home, in unfamiliar surroundings and learn to be calm with people," he said. 

"With a program like this, we want adopters to understand that you'll be adopting a perfectly wonderful, social, well-mannered dog with great skills." 

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The organization has had many running and hiking groups approach it about getting shelter dogs involved in their outdoor activities. Hawkins hopes to expand the new project to different agencies all around the county. 

In addition to the DA Dogs program, Dudley and Hawkins came up with several other ideas to promote animal welfare and, in turn, even help humans in need -- from domestic violence survivors to crime victims and inmates who need rehabilitation. 

The agency is working with the county Sheriff's Office to have the shelter dogs be a part of the new Northern Branch Jail and has contacted the County Probation Office so juvenile probationers can also get involved, Dudley said.

They hope to establish a program with inmates to work with dogs, train them, help them find a home and "get rehabilitation themselves from the comfort and support they receive from animals," she added.

It's a multi-agency effort because "we want to be on the front lines where animals and people are in crisis," Hawkins said. 

"In the future, we also want to partner with domestic violence victims and ensure that we can take care of their pets when they need to leave an abusive situation," he said. "The science around the human-animal bond is irrefutable. Animals impact people positively in all walks of life, and we hope that we can continue partnering with the community with these new ideas."

Gina Kim covers crime and courts for Santa Maria Times. Follow her on Twitter @gina_k210

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