Using a Courthouse Dog in the Courtroom
What type of dog should be used in the courtroom?
Only dogs professionally trained by service dog organizations accredited by Assistance Dogs International (ADI) should accompany a witness into the courtroom. Most of these dogs have been in training since they were young puppies until they are about two years old. Only the very best are selected to become assistance dogs. These ADI accredited organizations also provide extensive training and ongoing support to the person who receives the dog so that the quality of the dog's performance remains high.
Assistance dogs accompanying a witness in the courtroom should have the following characteristics:
- They must be quiet, unobtrusive, and emotionally available for the witness when the need arises
- The dogs should be able to sit or lie down beside the witness for an extended period of time
- The dogs should not engage in any behavior that would distract the witness or other people in the courtroom
- The dogs should be able to assist the witness for as long as necessary.
Pet therapy dogs and volunteer handlers should not be used in the courtroom for several reasons
- Volunteer therapy dog handlers are usually required to be connected to their dog by a leash at all times. This would mean that the volunteer handler would have to accompany the witness and the dog up to the witness stand. This situation could be very distracting for people in the courtroom. It could make the handler very uncomfortable, or a prosecutor may not want the jury looking at a dog handler who has to provide guidance or correct a dog while the witness is testifying.
- Dogs working as therapy dogs are usually successful because they actively engage with people. However, a dog engaging with the witness during courtroom proceedings could interfere with questioning and testifying. The lawyers and the witness could lose their train of thought while the dog seeks attention from the witness.
- Pet Partners and other national therapy dog registration bodies recommend that therapy teams work for only two hours a day. However, an assistance dog may be needed for an entire day outside and inside the courtroom.
- Pet dogs and their volunteer handlers have varying degrees of training. For liability reasons, Pet Partners and Therapy Dogs International do not test these dogs to determine if they behave appropriately when they are in physical contact with children before they are registered as therapy dogs. Children who are asked to testify in a trial often behave inappropriately, cry, or get up suddenly from their seats. A dog unused to this behavior could growl or run away from the child making the situation even more stressful.
- If a dog misbehaves in a courtroom it could result in a mistrial, raise an issue on appeal, or make judges reluctant to take this risk to accommodate the needs of future nervous witnesses.
When should a dog accompany a witness to the stand?
Using a dog to provide emotional support to a witness should be reserved for only those witnesses that truly require this assistance. Make this assessment while preparing the witness for the trial. In one instance, the prosecutor asked the judge to allow a facility dog to assist seven-year-old girls who had been sexually assaulted, after the girls cried and absolutely refused to sit in the witness chair. In another case, the judge permitted a facility dog to assist an adult rape victim when the victim exhibited physical symptoms of stress and told the judge she needed the dog to get through the ordeal of seeing the defendant and his defiant family in the courtroom while she testified.
For the dog to be most successful in supporting the witness, the dog and witness should have had an opportunity to bond and interact with one another during pre-trial interviews. This will give the dog an opportunity to “read” the emotional state of the witness and make them more comfortable being in one another’s presence during this stressful time.
Read an article in the ABA Animal Law Newsletter - "Courthouse Dogs - A Case Study" for a prosecutor's perspective of how Ellie assisted a young child during a defense interview, a competency hearing, and a trial and why the child needed her support.
A courthouse dog helps defense counsel too
A defense attorney that is comfortable with dogs can use the dog to her or his benefit during cross-examination. In one trial, defense counsel questioned the child about her abuse with the facility dog seated between her and the child. During questioning both petted the dog and rather than appearing to be grilling the child it sounded as though they were having a quiet conversation. Jurors thought defense counsel was quite gentle with the child. Although the case ended in a mistrial, the child did not appear to have been stressed by the cross-examination. The defendant eventually entered a guilty plea to a similar but less serious offense, and the child did not have to make any more court appearances. See Seattle Times article "Courthouse Dogs Calm Victims' Fears About Testifying".
The Jury’s Response to the Dog
The juries that we have spoken to have not found the dog’s presence beside the witness to be distracting or inappropriate. They understand that some witnesses, especially children, require additional support during a trial.
The appellate courts also presume that the jury will follow the court’s instructions and will “not make any assumptions or draw any conclusions based on the presence of the dog.” State v. Dye, 283 P.3d 1130, (Wash. App. Div. 1, 2012) See appellate decision.
The court permitted the dog to assist the child and the jury acquitted the defendant. Wagging Tails - Proponents say courtroom dogs aid nervous witnesses but defense lawyers worry cute dogs could influence juries