Giving testimony in court can be a confronting experience – especially for children and other vulnerable witnesses.
But a US-based organisation has come up with an innovative way of supporting reluctant and frightened witnesses in the courtroom.
What is ‘Courthouse Dogs’?
Courthouse Dogs is an organisation that was established in Washington State in 2012 by former prosecutor Ellen O’Neill-Stephens and local vet Celeste Walsen.
It aims to ‘promote justice with compassion through the use of professionally trained facility dogs to provide emotional support to everyone in the justice system.’
The initiative began in 2003 after O’Neill-Stephens brought an off-duty police dog to children’s courts, police interviews and other court proceedings.
The organisation now has 87 dogs in various courts across 28 US states. The dogs are specially trained for 2 years before joining the program, and only those with the right temperament end up making the cut.
Courthouse dogs are chosen for their patience, attentiveness, and love of being cuddled and patted.
They undergo specialist training from a very early age – learning how to remain calm regardless of how stressful and emotional the situation becomes.
From 8 to 18 weeks of age, they learn to deal with a range of situations and environments – with trainers taking them to hockey games, restaurants, movie theatres and airports in order to make them comfortable with a wide variety of people and places.
How Do They Help?
Courthouse dogs help ease the fear and anxiety of witnesses who are reluctant to give testimony in court. Witness may be permitted to talk to the dog while on the witness stand, rather than having to face their alleged attacker and a courtroom full of people.
The dogs have proved to be especially helpful for complainants in domestic violence and sexual assault cases, and for frightened children – encouraging them to be more forthcoming with their testimony.
Court workers say that the presence of the dogs provides comfort and support by ‘anchor[ing] the victim and help[ing] them feel safe, reassured and in control.’
In many instances, children who have witnessed a crime may be reluctant to open up to adults– but are able to describe what they experienced to the dog.
Executive Director of the Courthouse Dogs Foundation, Celeste Wilson, says that the dogs have even influenced the decisions of defendants.
She claims that those who view videotapes of children giving statements in the presence of the dogs are surprised at how well the child can recount their experience. This, she says, increases the likelihood of the defendant pleading guilty – thereby sparing the child from having to give evidence in court.
Will We Get Them in Australia?
Assistance animals such as guide dogs are allowed into courtrooms, but there is currently no courthouse dog organisation in Australia.
Vulnerable people who are giving testimony in court are, however, allowed to have a support person present, who may be a friend or family member that offers emotional support and reassurance.
Those who work with survivors of trauma acknowledge the positive impact that a furry friend can have on their daily lives, and have explored the idea of having canine support persons in court.
But given recent funding cuts to community organisations, it seems that the cost of training courthouse dogs may be ‘prohibitively expensive.’
That said, it could simply be a matter of time before we see dogs inside courtrooms across Australia.