Animals, particularly dogs, are increasingly being integrated into court and related settings, most often in cases involving children. The dogs are intended to provide emotional support to victims who are involved in the many phases of legal proceedings. Two program models are most common. One approach requires that the dog’s handler is a professional in the legal system. An alternate model relies on volunteer handler-animal teams. All programs require thorough training of both team members and attention at all times to the needs and cues of the animal.
The Courthouse Dogs Foundation’s mission is “to promote justice with compassion through the use of professionally trained facility dogs to provide emotional support to everyone in the justice system.” The Foundation provides technical assistance and training for agencies adopting programs in which dogs provide emotional support to people in legal proceedings. The Courthouse Dogs Program requires that the dog is a graduate of an assistance dog school that is a member of Assistance Dogs International and that the dog’s handler is a professional in the legal system. Courthouse Dogs serve as greeters in public areas of justice settings, and provide emotional support in settings that include forensic interviews, defense interviews, child advocacy centers, courtrooms, and Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) programs. A list of locations with courthouse facility dogs can be found here.
The Therapy Dogs Supporting Kids (TASK) Program Manual provides information on how to integrate trained handler-animal teams into work with children in a variety of settings and situations, including child advocacy centers, police stations, hospitals or medical facilities, prosecutors’ offices, and courthouses. The teams may be included during forensic interviews, medical/SANE examinations, group and individual therapy, court preparation, and courtroom testimony.
Hosted by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) and the National Center for the Prosecution of Child Abuse, this webinar addresses How Therapy Animal Programs Can Help Maltreated Children. Webinar objectives are to:
- Understand the benefits and drawbacks of incorporating therapy animals with maltreated children, including the difference between therapy animals, service animals, and assistance animals.
- Understand the dos and don’ts of placing therapy animals as greeters and involving them during forensic interviews, medical examinations, therapy, court preparation, and courtroom testimony.
- Understand the legal objections to incorporating therapy animals with maltreated children.
Two states have passed legislation allowing facility dogs to accompany children during testimony in court.
In Arkansas, the “Courthouse Dogs Child Witness Support Act” provides for a child witness in a criminal proceeding to be assisted by a certified facility dog.
In Illinois, The Code of Criminal Procedure of 1963 was amended by adding Section 106B-10, which allows facility dogs to accompany a child or developmentally disabled adult who is the victim of sexual assault in any proceeding involving that offense.
Evidence of Effectiveness
While there is ample anecdotal evidence of the success of programs in which dogs provide emotional support in court and related settings, no formal studies of their effectiveness have been conducted to date.