Canine companions in the courtroom
Testifying in court is an unfamiliar process for most people and can be quite stressful, especially for a child. Having to recall traumatic events during this testimony can amplify this stress exponentially, sometimes causing the phenomenon called re-traumatization. Over the past 17 years, courts and child advocacy centers across the United States have begun to recognize the benefits of the support that can be provided to children by trained dogs.
Some 26 states currently have programs in which justice systems partner with facility dogs to support victims of crime. 16 of those states have laws that allow the use of man’s best friend in court proceedings, eight of which have legislation allowing their use to help witnesses testify in court.
New Hampshire currently has no laws regarding the use of dogs in the courtroom and the discussions have been filed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, a national bill, the Courtroom Dogs Act, recently passed the Senate. The bill, introduced by U.S. Senators John Cornyn (R-TX) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), clarifies the power of federal judges to allow certified facility dogs in courtrooms during proceedings and require the Department of Justice to issue guidelines for practical consistency when used in court.
Installation dogs are assistance dogs, such as guide dogs or emotional support dogs, that are specifically trained to work alongside professionals to help others, such as child victims.
According to Courthouse Dogs Foundation – a nonprofit organization founded in 2012 by former Seattle District Attorney Ellen O’Neill Stephens – “a facility dog must have graduated from an accredited nonprofit service dog school by Assistance Dogs International”. They typically receive about two years of training before being placed with a professional handler. They can also work with multiple handlers, on or off a leash, providing much-needed flexibility when present at private forensic interviews, medical exams, and courtroom hearings.
Their training includes obedience and resilience to stress, so as not to be disruptive or distracted by strange noises while performing their duties. They are not protective nor do they have the prey drive of some breeds usually distracted by quick curiosities like squirrels or cats.
When placed to work in the legal system, facility dogs undergo additional scrutiny to ensure they are affectionate and comfortable having close physical contact with children. The dog should not be distressed by a child suddenly tugging on its tail or an involuntary finger in its ear.
In addition to the courthouse, facility dogs work at child advocacy centers and city or county attorneys’ offices. Their managers are professionals who work in the legal system due to the confidential nature of certain proceedings. When not at work, an establishment dog is an affectionate pet for one of its main dog handlers.
The Courthouse Dogs Foundation is perhaps the biggest proponent of the placement and use of facility dogs. The organization has helped several states draft laws and believes courtroom pooches should be common practice.
In 2003, while serving as a prosecutor, O’Neill-Stephens brought her son’s service puppy, Jeeter, to accompany 7-year-old sexual assault victim twins to King County Superior Court in Seattle for the comfort during testimony against their abusive father. . The following year, she worked with Canine Companions for Independence to become the first service dog organization in the world to place a trained dog, Ellie, to work in a district attorney’s office.
“When under a lot of stress, direct questioning and cross-examination can cause a child to relive their trauma,” O’Neill-Stephens said. “Using installation dogs helps combat this and improves the fact-finding process.”
Celeste Walsen, veterinarian and executive director of the foundation, supports this claim, adding that “having a dog makes all the difference in the world in keeping witnesses in the right frame of mind to give meaningful testimony.”
Walsen, who also has a bachelor’s degree in psychology, says dogs impact the neurophysiology of humans. “For a vulnerable person like a child, the presence of police, lawyers, jurors and someone in a big black robe looking down on them can be very frightening,” Walsen said. “And when we’re struck with fear or anxiety, one of the first things you lose is the ability to speak. But the calming effect of a dog can help raise oxytocin levels and lower levels of cortisol, affecting neurotransmitters in the brain, to allow the witness to continue speaking.This limits further trauma and yields the best evidence.
According to Walsen and O’Neill-Stephens, the best breeds for settling dogs are Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, or a combination thereof.
“Worth its weight in gold”
Despite the lack of laws in New Hampshire, there is one state attorney’s office that occasionally uses a companion dog: the Carroll County Attorney’s Office.
“The experience was really helpful,” said county attorney Michaela Andruzzi. “It gives them something to focus on instead of having to face me.”
Westin, the Carroll County facility dog, is primarily located at the Carroll County Child Advocacy Center. His mistress (known as “Westin’s mom”), executive director Elizabeth Kelley-Scott, said he greets families when they arrive at the center and helps ease the anxieties of parents and children. He was trained in 2013 by Assistance Canine Training Services and is set to retire soon.
“Westin is worth its weight in gold,” Kelley-Scott said.
Recalling a case where Westin helped a child victim with attention deficit and oppositional defiant disorder to open up to her during a forensic interview, she said, “I didn’t think that he would talk to me, but we ended up talking for 30 minutes.
Concord City District Attorney Tracy Connolly has been involved in a few cases where a victim would bring a dog for comfort, but not while testifying. “If it helps a victim get through their testimony, I’m all for it,” she said.
Amanda Grady-Sexton, director of public affairs for the NH Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said she believes the imbalance in the interests of crime victims against the rights of defendants in the New Hampshire justice system regularly results in new traumas. “If the purpose of a criminal trial is to seek the truth and determine the innocence or guilt of the accused, the New Hampshire Legislature should support evidence-based efforts that help victims and witnesses to provide clear and consistent testimony, including the use of a discreet service animal in the courtroom,” she said.
However, some criminal defense attorneys are concerned about the presence of a dog on the witness stand.
“I would be concerned that this would enhance the credibility of the witness and make him sympathetic to the jury,” attorney George “Skip” Campbell said. “I would have no problem using one during recess when the jury can’t see them, though.”
Lawyer Sandra Bloomenthal expressed similar concerns. “I’m a dog lover, but I think the jury seeing a dog on the witness stand may elicit unwarranted sympathy,” she said.
But attorney Ted Lothstein has a different opinion. He had first-hand experience of using a companion dog in court when representing a defendant in a domestic violence case. He said the plaintiff, with no apparent mental or physical disability, brought a huge dog with her into the courtroom, and neither she nor the prosecution offered an explanation.
“The jury found in favor of the defendant,” Lothstein said. “It was like the proverbial elephant in the room, but in this case it was a very big dog. The lack of explanation damaged the prosecution’s case.
Some defense attorneys in other states have included objections to establishment dogs in their appeals, but to no avail.
In a Pennsylvania Supreme Court case, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Sheron Jalen Purnell, the court wrote, “there is nothing in the record to suggest that the comfort dog in any way interfered with the trial.”
Similarly, in Andre Montez Jones v. Georgia, Jones claimed that the trail court erred in allowing a facility dog to accompany one of the plaintiffs, that it harmed his defense by arousing sympathy of the jury. The Georgia Court of Appeals answered this question by stating, “Given the procedures followed by the trial court to minimize the presence of the dog, we cannot assume that the dog had any impact on the jurors, much less that he aroused sympathy in them”.
To minimize potential harm to defendants, the Courthouse Dogs Foundation recommends that facility dogs enter and exit the courtroom when the jury is not present and that the dog remains out of sight under the bar witnesses. It is also recommended that the judge inform the jury of the dog’s presence (but in no way be construed as reflecting the veracity of the testimony) and that the dog be made available to witnesses on both sides.
This article is shared by the partners of the Granite State News Collaborative. For more information, visit collaborativenh.org.