Courtrooms can be stressful for just about anybody, but kids who have experienced abuse, neglect, or trauma are especially likely to be intimidated by the adversarial nature of the legal system. Trying to get children and victims to open up about traumatic past events can be tricky, but in situations where their testimony is vital to a court case’s success, they must overcome their fear and anxiety to share their experiences so that justice is served.
That’s where courtroom dogs come in.
Every dog-lover knows that canine companions have a special way of empathizing with the humans around them. They seem to know precisely when we’re feeling nervous or anxious. Just stroking their fur or gazing into those puppy-dog eyes can alleviate our worst feelings and put our minds at ease.
All across the nation, their loving demeanor is helping kids and victims overcome their fear and testify.
Today, there are 78 courthouse dogs serving in 28 states as of May 20, 2015, and there are strong efforts around the nation to increase those numbers. These pioneering pups are part of a new movement that has sprung from research that has found therapy and companion animals helpful in reducing stress and anxiety in people. Research specifically on courtroom dogs is lacking because the concept is so new, but it’s reasonable to extrapolate from the literature covering similar situations.
One such dog is Samson, a one-year-old Great Pyrenees in Nashville, TN. He works with the Department of Child Safety and the Juvenile Court to help comfort children during their court dates. Samson can definitely empathize with the children. He lived for weeks in the pound before his owner adopted him, so he knows what the kids are going through when they’re placed in foster care. That feeling of being abandoned and unwanted is a genuine emotion that both dog and human have experienced.
Samson’s owner believes that if he could speak to the kids he would probably tell them, “If you keep an open heart then there’s somebody out there that will find you and love you.”
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Since the program is so new, standards for what constitutes a courtroom dog are still being hammered out. Courthouse Dogs suggests the following standards as best practices for a dog and its handler to qualify for service in the legal field:
- Dog is a graduate of an accredited service dog school
- The dog’s handler is a working professional in the criminal justice field. Examples of suitable handlers include victim advocates, detectives, forensic interviewers, and assistant prosecutors.
- Involved staff members have been trained in handling/use of the dog by professionals knowledgeable in the work that the dog will be doing about the legal aspects of incorporating a facility dog in the investigation and prosecution of crimes as well as handling/use of the dog.
Do you think that this is a good idea? You can help support the spread of dogs in courtrooms by contributing to our Gift That Gives More which provides a child victim with a courtroom dog for one full day.
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