FAQs about Courthouse Dogs
What is a courthouse dog?
A courthouse dog is a professionally trained dog who provides emotional support to people who are in some way involved in the criminal justice system. They are called “courthouse” dogs because the courthouse is the epicenter of the system but an individual dog may work at a child advocacy center or in some other facility instead of at a physical courthouse. And a courthouse dog is there for everyone – victims, witnesses, defendants, lawyers, judges, law enforcement officers, anyone who can benefit from the calming influence of a well trained dog.
I love the idea of this program! How can I get one started in my office?
The first step is to decide what kind of dog that you would like to have. Then start talking to everyone in your office or facility and see who lights up when you mention the idea. You will probably find a group of ready supporters (as well as a few skeptics, perhaps). Print some of our fact sheets to share with your colleagues, and request a copy of our free DVD to show to the judges or administrators who will have to give the OK. Please feel free to get in touch with us if you have questions or run into problems; we are always happy to help promote the use of these terrific dogs.
Where do you get a dog?
Courthouse dogs are raised and trained by a variety of nonprofits around the country. You may have to wait for a while for one of these professional dogs, but you will find the wait time well spent if you need a dog for forensic interviews or courtroom work. A list of all the accredited assistance dog organizations can be found on the web site of Assistance Dogs International.
How much does the dog cost? Who pays for it?
Costs for a courthouse dog vary with the organization doing the training. Canine Companions for Independence, for example, provides these dogs free of charge to individuals who qualify. Many other nonprofits provide courthouse dogs at low or no cost. There usually are some nominal expenses involved, as the handler must pay his or her own transportation and housing costs for a one or two week training period when receiving the dog. While the costs fall sometimes on the individual handler, many jurisdictions find that the return on the investment makes it worth their time to financially subsidize the canine program.
One of our staff members has a therapy dog. Can we just use this dog?
There are many reasons that it is better to get a dedicated, professionally trained courthouse dog for your office rather than make do with a pet therapy dog. Please read our suggestions on the use of therapy dogs in the criminal justice system. In addition to the other problems mentioned in this document, you may find it very difficult to obtain insurance coverage for a therapy dog who is handled by a staff member; usually therapy dog organizations provide liability coverage only for a handler (and dog) when acting in a volunteer capacity.
How do you learn how to use the dog effectively?
This site is a good start for a professional beginning to use a dog in his or her work. We are always happy to talk with individuals with questions about working with dogs in the criminal justice system. We also recommend that anyone considering getting a dog take the time to either visit a site already in operation or have an experienced team come to your location. Many of the practical difficulties can be easily overcome with a little preparation.
Where does the dog live when it is not at work?
Each courthouse dog lives with its primary handler, and has the life of a cherished pet dog when not at work.
How can you have a dog in an office when so many people are allergic to them?
Members of the public are rarely around courthouse dogs long enough or in close enough contact for this to be a problem. We recommend that when a dog is in use a sign be posted indicating the dog’s presence. This allows a visitor who has an allergy to easily keep his distance. If a member of the staff has a serious allergy, this should be taken into consideration when planning where the dog will stay during his “down time” at the office. Please see our other recommendations for dealing with dog allergic people.
Aren’t some people afraid of dogs? How do you handle that situation?
As with allergies, one thing that is very important is to let members of the public know that a well trained dog is present in the courthouse or other facility. The last thing you want is for a person with a deep fear of dogs to go around a corner and encounter your dog unexpectedly. But, surprisingly enough, our experience is that when people watch a quiet, well trained dog for a while in the courthouse environment, they are soon approaching with questions and maybe even wanting to touch the dog. We have some suggestions that might help you in dealing with fear of dogs.
How do you get a judge to allow a dog into the courtroom?
A well-behaved dog can make a dramatic impression on a judge who is leery about allowing a dog to accompany a witness to the stand. Please see the sample brief for one idea about how to present the information about the dog’s extensive training and the victim/witness need for the emotional support of the dog. Our page on using a dog in the courtroom may also be the source of guidance on this subject.