Courthouse Dogs: Comforting and Empowering Traumatized Victims to Tell Their Stories
A growing number of assistance dogs are working in the criminal justice system around the country, helping traumatized crime witnesses cope with the stress they face as they relive their stories.
Facility dogs like Lincoln, a Golden Retriever trained by Saint Francis Service Dogs in Virginia, help witnesses through the legal process, from evidence gathering and hearings to sitting on the witness stand in the courtroom.
Lori Jones, a forensic interviewer for the Fauquier County, Virginia, Commonwealth’s Attorney James Fisher, is Lincoln’s handler.
She recalls one situation in which a young assault victim was crying and shaking with her head on the table, unable to get the words out about what had happened to her. But when Lincoln entered the room, Jones says the victim looked up and stopped crying. She spent about 20 minutes telling investigators her story as she patted Lincoln’s velvety ears.
“It blows me away that people have this reaction to this dog,” Jones says. That’s just one of countless instances where Lincoln, and dogs like him, have made a difference.
There are now 95 of these dogs at work in 29 states across the U.S., according to the nonprofit Courthouse Dogs Foundation. The Washington state-based foundation works with accredited assistance dog schools to help place the dogs, primarily in victims’ advocacy centers and prosecutors’ offices. A specific individual from that office is trained by the school to become the dog’s handler — and the Courthouse Dogs Foundation works with the rest of the staff to educate them on what the dog can and can’t do. The programs are usually implemented after someone in the system hears about the idea and wants to bring a dog to his or her area.
Much like guide dogs, facility dogs are bred specifically for their assistance work. For example, facility dogs trained by Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) in California live with volunteer puppy raisers who socialize them until they’re about 18 months old, then they go back to the school to be trained by professionals for six to nine months. Once they’re placed with their handlers, the handlers spend another two weeks training at the school with the dogs before they go to work. CCI has trained about half of the courthouse facility dogs who are currently working. The dogs live with their primary handlers and are always accompanied by them, or someone else trained to handle the dog, at work.
The victims these dogs help are some of the most vulnerable to come through the legal system — children, rape victims or others who’ve witnessed horrific crimes.
The Courthouse Dogs Foundation’s executive director, Celeste Walsen, DVM, says the programs work best when the dogs are involved in each phase of a case.
That often starts with helping forensic interviewers build a trusting relationship with the children or other victims with whom they work, Cynthia Gevedon, a forensic interviewer who works at the Michael’s House Child Advocacy Center in Fairborn, Ohio, says.
Gevedon has worked with Nanook, a yellow Labrador Retriever who was trained by CCI, for nearly four years.
“In the very beginning, he’s utilized as a rapport builder,” Gevedon says of Nanook. “He is able to help us have something in common for a conversation starter. He is a neutral, nonjudgmental being who’s introduced in the mix. So while Nanook and I are usually strangers to children and families the first time they come to the center, I’m a person that they may worry about — what’s my reaction going to be with the things they say or what’s my disposition going to be like with them. … But with the dog, it’s very nonjudgmental, and it can also help break down some barriers of some of those fears and worries.”
The dogs sometimes work with children who are just 5 or 6 years old and don’t even have the vocabulary to explain what happened to them. “Here they are, coming into our office… telling this stranger [about] the worst thing that’s ever happened to them,” Jones says.
She recalls a case where a girl who was about 7 or 8 years old met Lincoln during a community holiday event for children who’d had contact with the sheriff’s office or social services. Months later, she was sexually assaulted. “She didn’t want to talk, but she said, ‘I met Lincoln, and I’ll tell him,’” Jones says. So Jones brought the dog in, and the girl sat on the couch with him and told a prosecutor her story for an hour and a half.
Giving Back Control
The handlers have also found that their highly trained dogs can help empower witnesses.
Gevedon remembers how a teenage girl who was a crime victim was about to take the witness stand in a sensitive case. She was agitated and nervous — until she was handed Nanook’s leash.
“Each time I would hand her Nanook’s leash, the shaking would stop, her voice would be very strong and she was able to stabilize,” Gevedon says.
She and Jones say that teaching victims simple commands they can give the dogs is another way of giving them back some control.
“It’s very empowering,” Gevedon says. “Most often when somebody is victimized, they will feel a sense of loss of control. By allowing children to work on some of the commands with Nanook, it helps them gain that sense of control back.”
There’s also some science behind how dogs in general can help change the person’s neurophysiology, Dr. Walsen says.
“Having the dog to hug raises [the witnesses’] oxytocin, raises their serotonin, reduces their cortisol, reduces their pulse and heart rate, keeps that child calm,” Dr. Walsen says. “It’s not a panacea, but it goes a long way down that road, so that when the child comes to a child advocacy center and there’s a dog there… it seems like home.”
These dogs are trained to help a witness feel comfortable in countless ways. A dog will sometimes go to the witness and lay his head in the person’s lap to comfort the witness. The dogs know games that children can play with them, including cards and hide-and-seek. Jones says Lincoln once kept two young girls busy and distracted in court for three days while they waited to take the stand.
And sometimes, just the dog’s presence is all it takes to make a difference.
“When we’ve had children who have become more emotional through their disclosure, Nanook will sometimes curl up a little tighter and a little closer to them,” Gevedon says.
Taking the Stand
If an attorney feels that the witness would do best on the stand with the dog in the courtroom, the attorney can make a motion to allow the dog. That’s the place where the biggest resistance to the dogs is usually met.
“There’s so much at risk at a trial — a person’s liberty depends on whether witnesses are able to give a full testimony there on the stand, whether the person is a witness for the state, the prosecution or the defense,” Dr. Walsen says. “If they can’t stand up there or sit up there and give their testimony, the jury doesn’t get to hear everything they need to hear to make that determination of guilt or innocence."
“It’s always easier not to innovate, to do things the way you’ve always done… judges used to worry that the decorum of the courtroom would be disrupted by a dog,” Dr. Walsen says. “The judge doesn’t want to be overturned. He doesn’t want to lose a case on appeal, because he’s had something new in the courtroom.”
But for many judges, Dr. Walsen says, once they experience one of these working dogs, they are swayed.
She explains that the best practice is for the witness and the dog to be brought to the stand before the jury is in the courtroom. “Then the jury is brought in, the testimony is taken, the jury leaves and the witness goes out with the dog — and ideally the jury would never have that visual of the beautiful dog sitting with the child. Some jury boxes don’t allow for that, but the dog can almost always be made very inapparent. They just lie down on the ground. They might snore, but they don’t do anything cute,” she says.
Gevedon and Jones say judges in their areas have welcomed the dogs. The first judge to allow Nanook in his chambers for a competency hearing was happy to take a photo afterward to be posted on Facebook — as long as she promised to tag him in it. “He very much wanted to be able to say he was the first one in Ohio,” Gevedon says.
Benefits for the Staff, Too
Among the countless ways courthouse dogs offer solace is one that hits close to home for their handlers: They can help the rest of the staff they work with better cope with the difficult things they see and hear in their jobs.
“It can be a tremendous help for the professionals who are working with these types of crisis and trauma situations, day in and day out,” Gevedon says.
Jones finds the same with Lincoln.
“He’s just a happy, pretty, beautiful dog with a bubbly personality, who just brings joy into wherever he goes,” she says. “The stories that I heard waiting for Lincoln, I’ve now witnessed and been a part of, and it is a magical thing to have this tool for people who need it. … It’s really a special thing.”
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