“Petting, scratching, and cuddling a dog could be as soothing to the mind and heart as deep meditation and almost as good for the soul as prayer.” ― Dean Koontz, False Memory
Several programs exist across the country in which prosecutors and defense counsel use professionally trained dogs to help ease the anxiety juveniles experience while being interviewed or testifying in court. Oftentimes, juveniles must discuss details of physical or emotional abuse, and having an affectionate, yet unobtrusive dog nearby helps ease the stress. Research has shown that within as little as five minutes of petting or interacting with a dog, a person’s heart rate and blood pressure lowers; breathing becomes more regular; muscle tension is reduced; and speech, memory, and mental functions increase. The physiological changes juveniles experience when courtroom dogs are around aid their ability to testify, which is extremely important because juveniles’ testimony needs to be as articulate and complete as possible. In her article, Court Facility Dogs—Easing the Apprehensive Witness, Colorado attorney Gabriela Sandoval states, “The more at ease a child feels, the more effective his or her testimony will be. Articulate testimony will assist in obtaining evidence that can either convict or exonerate the defendant. When the child witness is comfortable, emotions may not obstruct or slow down important testimony.”
The Courthouse Dogs Foundation was founded with the mission “to promote justice with compassion through the use of professionally trained facility dogs to provide emotional support to everyone in the justice system.” Their website, courthousedogs.com, recounts the positive outcome from a trial in which a testifying juvenile was allowed to be accompanied by a facility dog:
In September of 2012, in Snohomish County, WA, Mary Mazalic was brought to trial for starving, beating, and burning a ten-year-old girl. Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Lisa Paul filed a motion in limine to ask the court’s permission to allow facility dog Stilson to sit at the feet of this child victim while she testified in court. Her brief included an affidavit from victim advocate Heidi Potter, Stilson’s handler, documenting how Stilson provided comfort to this child during the investigative phase of these crimes. The judge found that this child suffered emotional trauma from these events. The defense did not object to the presence of Stilson with the agreement that he would be concealed by the witness box and the jury would not be aware of his presence. While in the witness box, Stilson remained calm and out of sight during the lengthy direct and cross-examination. He did not even move when defense counsel spilled a glass of water into the witness box and several people moved to this area to clean up the water.
The defendant was convicted as charged.
After the trial, jurors stated they did not know that a dog was in the courtroom. Stilson, the invisible dog, was bred, raised, and trained by Canine Companions for Independence. His behavior exemplifies the high level of training of a facility dog.
This is only one of numerous success stories of facility dogs assisting in criminal, juvenile, and drug courts. Additionally, these dogs visit juveniles in detention facilities and are a friendly presence during their recovery process. Currently, there are courthouse dogs working in twenty-one states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Washington.
The unconditional love and support the courthouse dogs offer juveniles make them a positive counterbalance to the often overwhelming and stressful setting of the courts. The placement of dogs in the courthouse is a wonderful program, which hopefully, will continue to grow and be implemented in more courts throughout the country.
Above Photo: Courthouse dog Russell, trained by Assistance Dogs of the West, works at the Southern Arizona Child Advocacy Center with Director Kathy Rau. Photo courtesy Courthouse Dogs Foundation.
Intro Photo: Molly B at the King County Courthouse. Molly B was bred and trained by Canine Companions for Independence. Photo courtesy Courthouse Dogs Foundation and the Seattle Police Department.
For more information regarding the Courthouse Dogs Foundation or for starting a program for the use of courthouse dogs, visit courthousedogs.com.