Q. Will the use of a therapy dog be prejudicial?
A. No. Case law has upheld the use of therapy dogs in all judicial settings, including courtrooms. Our program has chosen to avoid the introduction of the therapy dog to the jury during trials, thereby avoiding jury instructions about the dog or why it is present.
Q. How is the dog brought into the courtroom, and how do you avoid creating a distraction?
A. The jury is excused before the child and therapy dog team enter the courtroom. The team escorts the child to the witness box, helps the child get comfortable, and then moves to the back of the courtroom. The dogs are never placed in the witness box with the child during testimony, in order to avoid creating an overly sympathetic witness. The team is generally kept out of sight of the jury. If a jurist does notice the dog, it simply appears to be a dog sitting quietly with its owner in the audience.
Q. How much does this cost?
A. Our program, and others like it, is provided free of charge to the court. All our courthouse therapy teams are well trained, experienced and dedicated volunteer handlers.
Q. How many jurisdictions currently use therapy dogs in judicial proceedings?
A. Therapy dogs are currently being used in in most states, and because of their success, more programs are coming on line all the time. Therapy dogs have been used successfully in courts across the country since 1991.
Q. How safe are these dogs?
A. Very safe! These are well trained and evaluated dogs, with no reports of anything but positive and successful interactions. In fact, since their introduction in 1991, there has never been a documented case of a negative incident involving a courthouse therapy dog.
Q. How hard is it to set up and administer? How do I get started?
A. It’s easy! Within this website we have provided references to all the materials, policies, procedures, protocols and evaluation methods that have served our circuit (and other like it) since 2007. We can even help you find teams in your area.
Q. What kind of training does a Courthouse Therapy dog and handler have/need?
A. A courthouse therapy team (dog and handler) must first receive certification or registration from an organization that evaluates, registers and insures therapy dogs. These therapy teams must then undergo additional training and evaluations before they are ready to work in judicial proceedings.
Specifically, these teams must have experience with and demonstrate proficiency working with children in various environments. In addition, teams must undergo background checks, sign oaths of confidentiality, and pass tests specific to the protocols and practices of their particular jurisdiction. TMH Animal Therapy offers a complete list of requirements and the National District Attorneys Association Task Force created a list of recommendations on the use of Therapy Animals in Judicial Proceedings.
Q: How does it work?
A. The victim will typically be introduced to the dog and team long before any judicial proceedings, so that the victim, dog and Prosecutor can get to know each other and bond while they establish a relationship. This relaxes the victim and makes it easier for them to relate to the Prosecutor and to give clear and accurate testimony.
Q: Which is better, courthouse therapy dogs or facility dogs?
A. Both! Facility dogs are dogs that were initially trained to be service dogs but were “career changed” to work as facility dogs in either schools, hospitals, courts or child advocacy centers. Facility dogs have been working in courts for a little over a decade; therapy dogs have been working in courts for over 25 years. There are just over 100 facility dogs across the country, but there are thousands of therapy dogs. All are successful and work well, with no documented negative incidents.
The question is not which is better, but which do you have access to? A traumatized child cares about the dog’s particular training about as much as they care about their prosecutor’s legal training—it is irrelevant to the child. They need a calm and gentle dog to help get them through difficult times. Courthouse therapy dogs and facility dogs have long proven successful. Use whatever you can, whenever you can! You and your clients will be glad you did.