Therapy Dogs Take A Stand
One of the millions of reasons why dogs are the best
For some trial witnesses, and especially children, talking in court—in front of all those people—can be tough. So describing the events of a difficult situation such as sexual abuse can be nearly impossible. Can you blame them? Testifying about a terrifying experience with strangers while sitting alone? That’s why a growing number of courts across the country, including here in San Diego, have adopted programs allowing specially trained dogs to accompany these vulnerable witnesses on the stand.
Kathy Lam, a retired deputy attorney general for the California Department of Justice, and her dog Hoku, became the first volunteer team for the D.A.’s office in 2012. Now there are 13. I chatted with San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan to learn more.
What is a courthouse dog?
The court dogs are part of a program that has been in place since 2009. They help some of the most vulnerable crime victims and witnesses—children and teens—feel comfortable and confident when they have to testify in court. The dogs go to court with the victim or witness, providing comfort and reducing anxiety with their presence. The handlers are volunteers from Love on a Leash and Paws’itive Teams. The dogs are certified therapy dogs.
How does the dog help the child specifically?
Court dogs provide comfort and emotional support through the court process. Having a friendly dog present puts children at ease, provides tranquility and creates a friendly atmosphere. The dog stays with the victim throughout their court testimony. We also use the dogs for informal meetings with child victims and witnesses.
What is the pretrial preparation?
Even before there is a court date, we help children become more familiar with the court process. A handler and dog meet the child at our offices in our child-friendly room so they can start to bond and get ready for their testimony. On the day of testimony, the dog and child will usually meet in that same room and spend time together before they go to court.
Where is the dog while the child gives their testimony?
The dog is meant to be inconspicuous so generally, it is in the witness stand at the feet of the witness, out of view of spectators and jurors. The handler sits nearby in visual contact with the dog.
Are most of the witnesses children? Does a courtroom dog assist all ages?
The court dogs are most commonly used for victims and witnesses under the age of 18, but they can also be used for other vulnerable victims such as elders and dependent adults.
What change have you or your staff seen when a courtroom dog is present during testimony?
Petting an animal significantly reduces stress and produces a calming effect. With our victims and witnesses, we have seen terrified children who have to face their abuser in court go from incapable of speaking to valiantly testifying in front of attorneys, jurors, the public and the person or loved one who harmed them. The dogs offer so much comfort and confidence to those who need it most, and we are grateful for this program. The goal is to bring out the truth, accurate testimony and an account of the events.
Have you gotten better results when using courtroom dogs?
Absolutely. Court dogs reduce anxiety and allow our most vulnerable victims to assist in carrying out justice. By easing their fears, kids are allowed to tell an accurate story.
How do dogs become courtroom dogs?
Court dogs are certified therapy dogs through one of two programs: Love on a Leash (loveonaleash.org) and Paws’itive Teams (pawsteams.org). They are trained in providing emotional support and trained on how to behave in the courtroom setting. The dogs must be able to sit or lie down quietly for two to three hours and respond to hand signals from their handler as opposed to voice commands.