Courthouse Dogs Help Victims Tell Their Stories
When twin girls Jordan and Erin sat in a courtroom to testify against their father, they both broke down and cried. They weren’t comfortable discussing what he’d done, especially not in the detail needed to convict him. That’s where Jeeter came in. The golden retriever-lab mix sat with them on the stand, nudging them lightly with his nose, wordlessly encouraging them to share what they could.
Jeeter was a facility dog, one of a group of animals that accompany victims under duress to forensic interviews and court dates and sit with them while they speak, providing support. Trained by certified assistance animal facilities and owned by legal professionals, the dogs give emotional comfort to the victims, enabling them to better tell their stories.
“We try to promote a more humane form of justice by using assistance dogs to accompany individuals who are under a lot of stress in the legal system,” says Celeste Walsen, executive director of the Courthouse Dogs Foundation, an organization that trains legal professionals to work with the dogs. “They’re used in lots of different ways, but what we want to do is help reduce the stress inherent in the legal system for all individuals that are impacted.”
Primarily, the dogs are used with children who have been victims of sexual assault or witnessed severe domestic violence. But adults can benefit, too—courthouse dogs comfort and support adult victims of rape or domestic violence, as well as drug offenders in a judge-supervised treatment program for committing a nonviolent crime. Currently, Walsen tells mental_floss, 98 pooches work as facility dogs across 31 states.
Psychologist Stuart Bassman suggests that animals in the judicial system foster a “pure spirit” connection, something that eases the mind of everyone involved. Walsen agrees.
“If you are in sight of a very relaxed calm dog, it actually lowers your blood pressure and your pulse rate,” she says. “We count on dogs to let us know when something dangerous is coming. That’s why people sleep better if they know their pet dog is going to bark if someone comes to the front door. It works the same way in a courtroom. Just having a calm dog lying there keeps everybody calm because it gives the assurance that we’re in a safe environment. If we weren’t in a safe environment, the dog would be up on his feet looking around and barking.”
But some researchers believe that courtroom dogs may be beneficial for the victim testifying but unfairly sway the jury into suggesting a longer sentence. A report published in the Indiana Law Review cites a 2011 case where a 15-year-old girl sat with a courtroom dog and testified against her father for rape. As she leaned into the dog for support while telling her story, the defendant’s attorneys claimed the dog created unfair sympathy for the victim—whose father received 25 years to life in prison.
The Courthouse Dogs Foundation is steadfastly fighting against that reasoning, not only citing about a dozen studies and many more articles on their website that tout the benefits of the animals, but also noting that, for some kids, it’s absolutely necessary to have the dogs around.
“It’s just not developmentally appropriate for a 6-year-old to sit up and tell you about something terrible that just happened,” Walsen says. “It really helps them to have the dog there. They turn to the dog and talk to the dog. It levels the playing field and makes it possible for everybody to have a voice.”
All images courtesy of Courthouse Dogs Foundation.