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Therapy Dog

Therapy Dogs:  Are the Courts Going to the Dogs?

In recent years a new kind of dog has begun to appear in courtrooms.  These dogs are used as therapeutic support in two basic circumstances, first, for emotionally vulnerable witnesses and second, for individuals who are participating in a Veteran’s Treatment Court.

herapy dogs helped reduced both veteran anxiety and recidivism in the court system.

Going to the Dogs?

A therapy dog is not a service dog, as it does not assist a person with a disability; rather its role is to assist individuals who find being in a courtroom a stressful experience.  There is significant scientific evidence about the physical and mental calming effects of therapy dogs, including positive effects on social communication, the ability to make social contacts, reduction in feelings of loneliness and improvements in self-esteem.

Initially defense counsel objected to having witnesses testify with a dog next to them asserting it was prejudicial. This slowed the development of the placement of dogs in courthouses as some prosecutors were unwilling to test the legitimacy of dogs’ presence.

Therapy Dogs
Judge MacKenzie and a local therapy dog.

Inevitably these objections were taken up by the appellate courts. In the leading case, State v. Dye, 178 Wn. 2d 541, 309 P.3d 1192 (2013) (en banc), the Washington Supreme Court considered, a defendant’s claim that his right to a fair trial was compromised because the dog’s presence improperly incited the jury’s sympathy. The Supreme Court rejected that argument and explained: ‘‘Here, the trial court….determined that Ellie, the facility dog provided, . . . was needed in light of [the victim’s] severe developmental disabilities in order for [the victim] to testify adequately.’’

Veterans’ Treatment Courts and Therapy Dogs

Dogs also began to appear in the courthouse in Veterans’ Treatment Courts.   In Michigan in 2013, the Canine Advocacy Program, Stiggy’s dogs and the 52nd District Court created the first Veterans’ Treatment Court therapy dog program.   It combined two concepts. First, therapy dogs would be available during the court review sessions and second, for those participants with significant Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a fully trained therapy dog would be adopted by the veteran.  This combination reduced both veteran anxiety and recidivism.

While both programs are relatively new, it can be fairly said that because of them, courts are really going to the dogs.

What do you think? Should dogs be in the courtroom as part of the criminal justice system? Have you seen it in practice? What did you think?

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