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Courthouse Dogs Give Comfort to Traumatized Victims

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Facing the Fear

Five-year-old Joey was scared stiff.  He knew what he had seen his father say and do to his mother, but he couldn't bring himself to tell the prosecuting attorney. The attorney, Tomas Gahan, was frustrated. Joey's father had attacked the boy's mother several times, attempting to strangle her, pulling out hunks of her hair and threatening to kill her.  But unless Gahan could get Joey to testify about what he had seen and heard, there would be no chance of obtaining a conviction and a guilty man would go free.

Then Gahan remembered Ellie, the trained assistance dog that worked in the prosecutor's office and whose express purpose it was to calm and comfort crime victims.

"Do you like dogs?" Gahan asked Joey.  "I like puppies a lot," Joey said. 

Gahan saw a glimmer of hope. The promise of seeing Ellie meant that Joey would be present at the defense interview. But being present and testifying were two different things.  At the interview, Joey froze again. "Just a minute, I'll be right back," Gahan said.  Then he went to fetch Ellie. Joey's whole demeanor changed when he saw the dog walking towards him. After playing with Ellie for over an hour, her warm body nestled beside him, he was able to tell the prosecutor and the defense attorney what he had seen. Because of Joey's testimony, Gahan was successful in obtaining a conviction, and now Joey and his mother can live free from the fear of the man's violent attacks.

Ellie is a hero, but she is not unique; instead, she is part of a growing subspecialty of service animals: the courthouse dog.  As early as 2003, courthouse dogs have been used to provide emotional support to victims within the criminal justice system. Courthouse dogs also assist drug court participants in their recovery, visit juveniles in detention facilities, greet jurors and boost the morale of courthouse staff who must often conduct their business in a hostile environment.

Superior Court Judge Wesley Saint Clair of Seattle said: "We find that the dog's presence dissipates tension for everyone when dealing with difficult issues and provides a sense of normalcy."

Of course, not every dog is suitable for this kind of highly skilled work. According to Ellen O'Neill-Stephens, founder of the Washington-based agency Courthouse Dogs, only the most well-behaved dogs can even be considered. "The last thing we want is a dog growling, biting, whining or distracting a child," Stephens said. Regular pets are not viable candidates because the animals must exhibit a high level of good behavior that takes much more training than is typical for average pets. For example, courtroom dogs are trained not to react if food is thrown at their feet; they won't touch it until they're given direct permission to do so. And they will stay still for long periods of time, which is often necessary when a child is testifying. "In a forensic interview, our dogs will just lie there and be available to be petted," Stephens said. "A pet will want to get up and run around, or will want to engage with the child."

Courthouse dogs, usually Golden Retrievers or Labrador Retrievers, or mixes of the two, go through an intensive, 18-month training process. Only dogs that have been trained by service dog organizations accredited by Assistance Dogs International are eligible to become courthouse dogs.

During their training, the dogs are exposed to a variety of situations and stimuli that desensitize them. Some may become service dogs, or help the hearing-impaired, or become "skilled companions" for children with physical or developmental disabilities. Then there are the select few whose companionship enables children to speak openly about their traumatic experiences.

Changing Attitudes

There's an added, perhaps less immediately visible benefit provided by these dogs as well. Trained dogs working in the criminal justice system are raising the status of animals in society. Instead of being viewed as undisciplined consumers of food and creators of noise and mess, courthouse dogs are seen as intelligent, highly trained advocates and helpers. The experience can be illuminating and transformative, changing the public's perception of the cognitive capabilities possessed by a domestic canine.

Looking Ahead

The continued use of courthouse dogs can help bring about a major change in how we meet the emotional needs of everyone who participates in the criminal justice system. The dog's calming presence creates a more humane and efficient system that enables judges, lawyers, and staff to accomplish their work in a more positive and constructive manner. Courthouse dogs are heroes all right; just ask Joey and his mom.



Credit: Reviewed by John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, PhD and Susan E. Aiello, DVM, ELS
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