Using a Courthouse Dog in Public Areas
Learning how to work with a dog in this setting
This is a skill that takes a little practice and lots of patience. When in this environment the dog must be at your side and under your control at all times. The dog should be wearing a vest that shows his connection to the courthouse in an official capacity. Some people are afraid of dogs, dislike them or have allergies. Practice reading the body language of members of the public while walking around with your dog.
People who like dogs
People who are interested in the dog usually make a favorable comment, approach the dog, extend a hand or their faces brighten up. Ask them if they would like to meet the dog and make the dog available for a hand shake or some petting. In no time, you will be engaged in conversation and take this opportunity to explain why the dog is there. It is enjoyable but be prepared to hear lots of dog stories. Many people end the interaction by stating that the encounter made their day. This is an easy way to promote the philosophy that the dog is available to everyone in the courthouse setting. This is also a great time to present your dog’s trading card that explains how your dog helps others. We usually keep several of Molly B’s cards stashed in her vest pocket for this purpose.
This is CCI Facility Dog Macy’s trading card. Sadly, Macy died at a very early age from bone cancer just days before she was scheduled to assist a child in the courtroom. We don’t want her short time helping kids to be forgotten. Courthouse Dog Macy Succumbs to Bone Cancer
People who are afraid or dislike dogs
These people often look a little panicked when they see the dog and withdraw from your space. If they are still within speaking distance and looking at you, reassure them that the dog is friendly and explain the reason for the dog’s presence in the courthouse public areas. People will either relax and approach you, nod and maintain their distance, or walk away. Take your cues from their physical reaction to you.
Sometimes you will encounter family members that have mixed reactions to the dog. Parents are happy to see the dog but their small children are hesitant. The parents will let you know if they want to engage with you by encouraging the child to meet the dog. I usually give the dog a command to lie down. The dog should know that this means he should be perfectly still and not move. This makes the dog less threatening to the child. The child will cautiously approach the dog and in short order, will be on the floor petting him ready for more interaction.
Make the most of this opportunity even if you are tired
You never know when that little bit of extra effort on your part can make such a difference. After making a day long presentation to judges, prosecutors, court administrators and courthouse security at the office of the Baltimore City State Attorney’s office, Jeeter and I headed out of the victim/witness office. As we walked down the hallway we saw a woman with her two adult children seated on a bench looking agitated and angry. I was looking forward to getting back to my room and taking a break, so I had no desire to socialize. As we walked past the family, the young man asked me about Jeeter. I paused for a moment, thought about giving a quick response as I walked by, and then decided to chat with him. Within moments, all three family members were petting Jeeter and enjoying watching him perform his “tricks”. While this was going on I glanced up and saw a courthouse deputy sheriff looking at us intently with his arms folded across his chest. Meanwhile, the mom explained that they were having a terrible day and the three of them had been fighting. When it was clear that everyone felt better, I resumed my departure from the building. As I walked passed the sheriff, I recognized him from my presentation earlier in the day. He stopped me and said, “Now I’m a believer.” He explained that he had heard the family arguing around the corner and when he heard me speaking to them, he rushed to the scene concerned for my safety. He was surprised to see us having such a good time, when moments earlier he was anticipating making an arrest.
When you really don’t have the time
There will be times when you and your dog simply don’t have the time to engage with people. Walk with a fast pace and make no eye contact with anyone. If someone comments, smile or wave and keep going. This will be the time when people will be reading your body language and know that you don’t have the time.
An introduction to what courthouse dogs are doing in King County, Washington. Winner of a 2009 Washington State Bar Association video contest on the theme of "Justice for All".