Not all heroes wear capes, but many wear a furry coat. Meet the courthouse dogs, a pack of specially trained canines whose role is to support people, namely children, who are facing the scary prospect of a court appearance.
Sandy Moore, of the Office of Children and Families in Court said, “Comfort dogs aren’t just about being warm and fuzzy in the courtroom – they can actually have some tangible benefits to the children and to the families but really to the judge him or herself because the less anxious people are in the courtroom, the better information the judge is going to get.”
The witness box can be a very lonely place for a testifying victim; having to talk about suffering physical or sexual abuse in front of their abuser and a room full of strangers may seem an impossible feat for some. Having a gentle dog as an ally can change everything; they lower stress and anxiety, and help to create an atmosphere of safety.
The program has been very successful, but some defence attorneys have argued that the dogs create bias against the defendant, as they create sympathy for the testifying witness with the jury.
Celeste Walson, executive directer of the Courthouse Dogs Foundation, refutes this, telling Mental Floss, “It’s just not developmentally appropriate for a 6-year-old to sit up and tell you about something terrible that just happened. It really helps them to have the dog there. They turn to the dog and talk to the dog. It levels the playing field and makes it possible for everybody to have a voice.”
To make the grade, the dogs have to go through a rigorous selection process. Each one is a graduate of an Assistance Dogs International-accredited organisation; like assistance dogs, they must be calm, well-behaved and non-disruptive. But like any working dog, they enjoy their downtime, too!
Let’s hope we have a similar program in the UK in the future!
Find out more about the Courthouse Dogs Foundation here.