Why court dogs are crucial for our justice system

All rise for the honorable court dogs! These specially trained therapy dogs, slowly making their way to courts across the country, help witnesses and victims as they take their stand.

There is something about the way a dog looks at you with his soft brown eyes that immediately puts you at ease. However stressed and anxious you may be, your worries somehow melt away when a dog rests his head in your lap and asks you for affection. Dogs' ability to provide love and security is well known – that's why therapy dogs are so common. But there's another job dogs can do that you may not know about – as witness/victim advocates.

What is a court of justice?

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 used to play a unique role in legal situations – they are used as witnesses / victim advocates. In both King and Snohomish counties in Washington, two prosecutors' offices have begun using trained dogs to provide on-site therapy to crime victims. These dogs keep the victim company while waiting in the hall to be called to give their testimonies, and they follow the victim to the witness stand. When the victim makes his statement, he feels the dog's head resting on his foot and can reach down to stroke his soft fur if he gets nervous. Something as simple as having a dog in the courtroom makes a big difference in court cases.

The history of court dogs

In 2003, Ellen O'Neill-Stephens, a deputy prosecutor in King County, appealed to Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) in Santa Rosa, California, to pair a service dog 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 get close to Sean and for Sean to interact with others. During the training, Stephens couldn't help but notice that several other patients were so-called "facility -Dogs received – dogs trained to provide assistance in certain situations. Some dogs were trained as service dogs for children with autism and others were trained for specific hospital units.

After the training between Jeeter and Sean, Stephens began to wonder if service dogs could be used in a courtroom somehow. Eventually, Stephens began taking Jeeter with him when he could not accompany Sean. As a drug court prosecutor, Stephens had hopes that Jeeter might be able to help children in the stages of recovery. Jeeter's impact was felt immediately when he partnered with a boy who was forced to testify against his mother for sexual abuse. The boy was nervous about testifying, but agreed to give his testimony on the grounds that Jeeter would 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 while he gave his testimony. Stephen's idea worked flawlessly – the boy gave his complete testimony while holding onto Jeeter's downy neck.

Jeeter's courtroom success led Stephens to request a dedicated service dog for the King County Prosecutor's Office to help her victims give difficult testimony. It took some work and a lot of commitment, but Stephens convinced King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng and several members of the sexual assault unit to meet with Jeeter. It didn't take long for Jeeter to work his charms and convince everyone involved. Courtrooms Dogs may not be commonplace yet, but if the positive results from King County are any indication, it won't be long before there's a dog in every courtroom in America.

If you are interested in learning more about court dogs or developing this type of program in your community, visit Courthouse Dogs. This nonprofit promotes justice with compassion through the use of professionally trained dogs who provide emotional support to everyone in the justice system. You will find many helpful tips and resources that you can put into practice, or you can donate to their cause.

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