Courthouse Canines: Therapy Dogs Take the Stand

Therapy Dogs Can Help During Stressful Court Hearings

Certified therapy dogs have proven their worth in providing comfort to seriously and terminally ill people. But therapy dogs have also ventured into the courtroom to help crime victims cope with the prospect of giving testimony.

Twenty-six states now have programs in which therapy dogs are working in the judicial system, according to the nonprofit Courthouse Dogs Foundation in Bellevue, Washington.

Canine Companions for Independence became the first assistance dog organization to place a therapy dog to work in a prosecutor’s office. Ellie, a Labrador Retriever mix, began working with prosecutors in Seattle in 2004.

Last year, the Marion County Family Court in Ohio became the first family court to add a courthouse facility dog to its staff, the foundation reports. Camry, a Labrador Retriever mix, is helping children and families cope with the stress of courtroom proceedings.

Criminal justice authorities in Jacksonville, Florida, turned to therapy dogs to provide calming support to victims, and to take the focus off the trauma of their testimony while reliving details of their victimization.

The idea to bring canines in the courtroom to provide aid and comfort to victims began when the Florida State Attorney's Office teamed up with the Jacksonville Humane Society in late 2005, after a brainstorming meeting by the two organizations.

Out of that simple brainstorming session a new pet-therapy program called PATCH (Pet Assisted Therapy in the Courthouse) was conceived. The program has been used in several criminal cases in Florida, including that of an 8-year-old girl recounting the abuse she endured as part of a deposition about an attack, and helping a 20-year-old rape victim give testimony in court against her rapist.

Like their counterparts in hospitals and nursing homes, courtroom therapy-dog handlers undergo training, and their canine companions are certified in pet-assisted therapy programs offered through national service-dog organizations. Each dog-and-handler team also acquaint themselves with the legal process before they are allowed to participate in the PATCH program.

One of the original courthouse dogs to aid young victims was a German Shepherd Dog named Vachss, used by the Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC) in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1990s, according to the American Bar Association.