Today my husband was at the Arapahoe Courthouse. He passed by the courtroom where the James Holmes trial is taking place, and in the hallway were two courthouse dogs, a black lab and a Schnauzer. Several children and adults would occasionally hug or pet the dogs, who are specially trained to provide comfort to witnesses and others.
I first learned about courthouse dogs while writing the nonfiction book A Lawyer's Primer for Writers: From Crimes to Courtrooms. I was writing a section on players in the courtrooms when I stumbled upon an article about courthouse dogs (AKA therapy dogs). I had never heard of such dogs being used in the court system before, so I researched their history and learned how the concept began, which dogs are a good "fit" to work with victims of crimes, the work a trainer does with the dog and victim leading up to a trial, and much more. Below is the write-up from the book on courthouse dogs.
Courthouse Dogs: Canine Compassion at Court
(Excerpt from A Lawyer’s Primer for Writers: from Crimes to Courtrooms - All Rights Reserved)
"I center on their healing power within the justice system. There is so much hurt — the victims, families, even members of our office — from exposure to trauma and anxiety…within this environment, the dogs contribute to justice." – King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng
Did you know that as of the writing of this book, there are 60 courthouse dogs (also called facility dogs and advocate dogs) working in 23 jurisdictions throughout the US?
What Is A Courthouse Dog?
These are specially trained dogs that provide emotional support to people who have suffered physical, psychological or emotional trauma as a result of criminal conduct. For example, a courthouse dog might offer comfort to a sexually abused child while he/she undergoes forensic interviews and testifying in court. These dogs will also greet jurors; offer a soothing presence for vulnerable witnesses; provide a sense of normalcy during emotionally charged court hearings; even cuddle and play with troubled teenagers waiting for hearings.
Courthouse dogs truly become a member of the court as they often visit with court support staff, defense counsel, law enforcement officers and judges during the course of a work day.
Criminal justice professions — such as a deputy prosecutor, law enforcement officer, victim advocate, or forensic interviewer — handle courthouse dogs.
Dogs’ Beneficial Effects on People
According to an article in WebMD, people can derive the following benefits from dogs:
- Reduced blood pressure and/or heart rate.
- Increased levels of a relaxation hormone.
- Decreased levels of stress hormones.
- A sense of belonging.
- A greater control of one’s life.
Let’s look at the story of a courthouse dog named Rosie.
Rosie, the First Courthouse Dog in New York State
In 2011, Rosie, an 11-year-old Golden Retriever, had her first day on the job as a courthouse dog. Before a court proceeding began, Rosie met Jessica, a 15-year-old girl who would be testifying in court about being raped.
Rosie and Jessica took the stand before the trial began so the jury wouldn’t see Rosie and possibly be influenced by her presence one way or the other. Throughout her testimony, Jessica petted Rosie — at one point, Jessica removed her shoe and buried her toes in Rosie’s fur. When asked by the prosecutor to point out the man who raped her, Jessica froze. Rosie, sensing Jessica’s distress, laid her head in the girl’s lap to comfort her. After a few moments, Jessica was able to point to the man.
Jessica and Rosie had been visiting each other for three months in preparation for Jessica’s trial date. During that time, the girl and dog had become acquainted by playing together, and Rosie had also learned how to tolerate the tight space of a witness box. Her handler would have Rosie sit in front of a barrier that the handler gradually moved closer to the dog until it mimicked being in a box.
The training paid off. With Rosie’s help, Jessica remained calm during her testimony, and the jury found the defendant guilty.
How Rosie Became a Courthouse Dog
Rosie had started out being trained to be a service dog at Educated Canines Assisting with Disabilities (ECAD), but when it took her three months to learn how to turn on a light, she was taken out of the program. What’s interesting is that such “service dog drop-outs” often go into other programs, such as training to be an arson or courthouse dog, for which they might be better suited.
Soon after Rosie’s left the service-dog training program, she began visiting the Green Chimneys school in Brewster, New York, where she showed a talent for soothing children who were stressed.
For the next eight years, Rosie moved onto the speech-and-occupational-therapy rooms at Green Chimneys, where children were encouraged to talk to Rosie via 80 verbal commands the dog knew. Rosie also aided the children during their physical therapy by encouraging them to follow her over obstacles.
And then she went to the Courthouse Dogs Foundation, where she was trained to work with children during court proceedings.
Sadly, Rosie passed away in 2012, but her legacy lives on through her younger sister, Ivy, who is now an in-house therapy dog at a children’s facility.
-End of Excerpt-
All rights reserved by Colleen Collins. Any use of the content (including images owned by Colleen Collins) requires specific, written authority. Other images are licensed by Colleen Collins, who does not have the authority to distribute to others.