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Dogs in the Courtroom

August 19, 2011 by  
Filed under Dog Activities and Training

Imagine if you or one of your loved ones had been the victim of a crime.  Wouldn’t you love to have your dog with you as your case traveled through the legal system?  Although the Courthouse Dogs program doesn’t allow you to bring your own dog to the courthouse, it does provide a dog to stay with you as you go through this stressful time.

The start of a great idea for dogs and humans alike

In 2003, King County (Seattle, WA) senior prosecuting attorney Ellen O’Neill Stephens took her son’s service dog, Jeter, with her to the courthouse and noticed the calming effect the dog had on traumatized people, particularly when the victims or witnesses were youngsters.  Jeter was soon joined by Ellie, another Labrador, in King County, and the program has since spread to areas of at least eleven states including Texas, Michigan, California, Missouri, and Florida.

The program has been endorsed by many prosecuting attorneys.   Keith Kaneshiro, Honolulu City Prosecutor and NDAA (National District Attorneys Association) Board Member says, “I am in favor of anything that helps victims, especially child victims, through the difficult process of testifying in court and presenting evidence at trial.”

Victim and witness advocates agree that having a dog present when their clients are interviewed makes it much easier for the traumatized person to tell his or her story, when it may be difficult for the person to talk about the crime to other humans.

As the program developed, they found that not all dogs are appropriate for the task.  For example, therapy dogs are trained to jump up on people who are distressed.  If this happens during the collection of evidence after a rape, the dog may contaminate the samples.  Therefore, dogs are trained specifically for courtroom tasks by organizations such as Canine Companions for Independence  in Santa Rosa, CA or Leader Dogs for the Blind in Rochester, NY.

Amos, Michigan’s Courthouse Dog

Famous Amos started life being trained as a guide dog for the blind, but his handlers at Leader Dogs could never break him of his habit of pulling against the leash when he was walked.  Because this would present a dangerous situation for a blind person, Amos underwent a career change.  District Judge Brian MacKenzie in Novi, Michigan brought Amos on-board to help calm victims as they prepared to testify.

Houston’s Paws and Order:  SDU

Borrowing from TV’s Law and Order:  SVU, Houston district attorneys started in 2009 as a means of assisting domestic violence victims feel safer while testifying.  The program has since been expanded to include child victims of abuse.  The six canine members of the “Special Dog Unit” were brought in at the request of the Bar Association, which co-sponsors the program.  This dual sponsorship highlights the fact that dogs are helpful not only to the prosecution, but to the defense as well, making cross-examinations more productive.

Some defense attorneys object to the use of facility support dogs, expressing concern that the dog might make the victim seem more likable in the eyes of the jury.  If the dog is introduced as a “therapy” or “victim support” dog, the argument goes, the jury will see the witness as a victim which prejudices the jury toward believing that a crime did indeed occur.

Courthouse Dogs recommends that existing laws regarding support people and support items be used to justify the presence of a support dog in the courthouse.  For example, as early as 1948, the US District Court in Washington, DC ruled that a 9-year old could sit on her mother’s lap as she testified.  (Holmes v. United States, 171F.2d 1022 )

In Houston, dogs are not yet used in the courtroom due to privacy concerns because each dog is accompanied by a volunteer handler.  In other locations, a member of the courthouse or district attorney’s office is designated as the dog’s handler, based on their living arrangements, financial ability to support the dog, previous dog handling experience, and interest in seeking continuing education to remain current in the dog handling field.


Diane Silman, a therapist in Donaphin, Missouri, uses her 2-year old black Lab Simon to help abused children in their interviews with attorneys both in and outside of the courtroom.  Silman notes that the dogs are non-judgmental and soothe the children as they confront such difficult memories.

When is a courtroom dog a bad thing?

As a matter of practicality, there are some times when dogs shouldn’t be used, or should be used only after special precautions are taken.  For instance, most people who go to the courthouse don’t expect to see a dog there, unless it is a menacing police dog.  Due to previous experiences with dogs or maybe even long-held beliefs about dogs, many people have a fear of canines.  When a handler is moving through the courthouse with a dog, he or she must be aware of those around the dog.

If someone shows fear of the dog, the handler is encouraged to keep the dog on a short leash and take the time to introduce the dog into the situation slowly.

Another concern is people who may be allergic to dogs.  Facility dogs must be carefully and meticulously groomed to keep shedding to a minimum, and each facility where a dog is used should maintain a dog-free zone where allergic people can be assured they will not suffer an attack from dog hair and dander.  Areas where the dog roams should be uncarpeted, if possible, and should be swept daily with a vacuum containing a HEPA filter.  HEPA air filters should also be used to reduce the concentration of allergens in the air.  Courthouse dogs should be trained NOT to give kisses, as canine saliva contains a high concentration of allergens.

Watch the NBC Nightly News feature about Courthouse Dogs.




One Response to “Dogs in the Courtroom”
  1. Wanda S Jean says:

    Hello, Is there Counthouse Dogs is Canada?

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