Why Courthouse Dogs Are Crucial To Our Justice System

PetGuide
PetGuide logo

There is something about the way a dog looks at you with his soft brown eyes that immediately sets you at ease. As stressed and anxious as you may be, somehow your troubles melt away when a dog rests his head in your lap, begging you for affection. The ability of dogs to provide love and reassurance is well-known – that is why therapy dogs are so common. But there is another job that dogs can perform which you may not know about – acting as a witness/victim advocate.

Related: Meet Faber, San Francisco’s First Courthouse Therapy Dog

What is a Courthouse Dog?

Therapy dogs are commonly used in hospitals and nursing homes but you probably don’t expect to see a dog when you walk into the courthouse. In some areas, however, dogs are being utilized to perform a unique role in legal settings – they are being used as witness/victim advocates. In both King and Snohomish counties in Washington, two prosecuting attorney’s offices have begun using trained dogs to provide in-court therapy for the victims of crimes. These dogs keep the victim company as they wait in the hall to be called to give their testimonies and they follow the victim to the witness stand. As the victim gives his statement, he feels the comfort of the dog’s head resting on his foot and can reach down to pet his soft fur if he starts to feel nervous. Something as simple as having a dog in the courtroom is making a big difference in court cases.

The History of Courthouse Dogs

In 2003, Ellen O’Neill-Stephens, a King County deputy prosecuting attorney, appealed to Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) in Santa Rosa, California to have a service dog paired with her son, Sean. Sean has cerebral palsy and, as a result, is severely disabled. CCI paired him with Jeeter, a Labrador/Golden Retriever mix. The two bonded quickly and Jeeter’s presence makes it easier for people to approach Sean and for Sean to interact with others. During training, Stephens couldn’t help but notice that several other patients were receiving so-called “facility” dogs – dogs that were trained to provide assistance in specific situations. Some dogs were being trained as service dogs for children with autism and others were being trained for certain hospital units.

Related: The Solution For Boring Court Programming? Adorable Dog Reenactments! [Video]

After completing the training between Jeeter and Sean, Stephens began to wonder if service dogs might somehow be put to use in a courtroom setting. Eventually, Stephens began taking Jeeter to work with her on days when he couldn’t accompany Sean. As a Drug Court prosecutor, Stephens was hopeful that Jeeter might be able to help children through the stages of recovery. Jeeter’s impact was felt immediately when he bonded with a boy who was being asked to testify against is mother on charges of sexual abuse. The boy was nervous about testifying but agreed to give his testimony on the grounds that Jeeter accompany him to the courtroom. When the court date arrived, Stephens asked everyone in the courtroom to sit on the floor so the boy could hug Jeeter as he gave his testimony. Stephens’ idea worked flawlessly – the boy gave his complete testimony, all while clinging to Jeeter’s fuzzy neck.

Jeeter’s success in the courtroom led Stephens to petition for a dedicated service dog for the King County prosecutor’s office to help their victims give difficult testimonies. It took some work and a lot of dedication, but Stephens eventually convinced King County prosecutor Norm Maleng and various members of the sexual assault unit to have a meeting with Jeeter. It didn’t take long for Jeeter to work his charms and for everyone in the meeting to be convinced. Courtroom dogs may not be commonplace yet, but if the positive results coming out of King County are any indication, it won’t be long before there is a dog in every courtroom across America.

If you’re interested in learning more about Courthouse dogs or want to develop this type of program in your community, visit Courthouse Dogs. This non-profit organization promotes justice with compassion through the use of professionally trained facility dogs to provide emotional support to everyone in the justice system. You’ll find many helpful tips and resources that you can put into practice, or you can donate to their cause.