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Amy Johnson Feb 4, 2010

A Legal Beagle: Using service dogs in the court room

We won’t see a dog practicing law any time soon, but that doesn’t mean we won’t see one in the courtroom. In fact, the practice is becoming more commonplace. Service dogs in the courtroom have been shown to be beneficial in breaking down the barriers of fear, distrust and anxiety, says one prosecutor, in order to get to the truth. Service dogs, offering unwavering emotional support and unconditional affection, can be useful in securing testimony from worried witnesses who might repudiate testifying against their known attacker.

To endure the ordeal of testifying, the calming presence of the service dog has been effective in nearly a dozen courtrooms around the country, especially with traumatized children. These specially trained canines meet with the witnesses or victims pre-trial so they can familiarize themselves with the children (or adults) and learn to recognize their emotional barometers. During the trial, their only job is to sit quietly in the witness stand with the person testifying. In most instances, they are barley seen or heard by anyone in the courthouse.

Courthouse Dogs, located in Washington, is an excellent resource that provides further information about courtroom dogs. The organization was founded after a prosecuting attorney began bringing her son’s service dog to work with her when her son was at school and she didn’t want the dog to be home alone. While she was bringing the dog to work, she was working on a case with twin 7-year old girls who had been sexually victimized by their father and were too terrified to testify. Without their testimony, their father would walk. The girls had spent time earlier with the service dog and were smitten with him. When the twins were on the stand, shaking and fearful, this prosecutor asked the judge to permit the dog to take the stand with the scared sisters. The judge allowed it and the dog laid quietly at their feet. Upon sensing tension in the girls, he would place his head on their laps. The dogs proved to be an item of comfort and security. The girls pet the dog as they were cross examined, and this provided them the ability to tell their stories, which resulted in two guilty verdicts on two counts of assault.

These legal beagles are typically trained by organizations that are members of Assistance Dogs International (ie Canine Companions for Independence). Their initial training emulates that of other service dogs (such as Leader Dogs for the Blind) like puppy raising, general training and then specific needs training. Characteristics for courtroom service dogs include:
* being quiet, unobtrusive and emotionally available for the witness
* being able to sit or lie down beside witness for an extended period of time
* not engaging in any behavior that would distract the witness or other people in the courtroom
* assisting the witness for as long as necessary

Those who oppose having dogs in the courtroom claim that it may taint the jury to where they would have more sympathy for the witness, thus not allowing for a fair trial. However, juries who were surveyed by Courthouse Dogs representatives did not find the dog’s presence to be inappropriate or opinion swaying. They understood, as do the courthouse canines, that some witnesses require additional emotional support during the trial. For more information, visit

Amy Johnson is a counselor, lecturer, founder, and program director of the non-profit organization, Teacher's Pet: Dogs and Kids Learning Together.

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