How Florida Courthouse Therapy Dog Teams Work

Florida Courthouse Therapy Dogs is a partnership between the Second Circuit Court of Florida and the Tallahassee Memorial Animal Therapy Program. The Second Circuit comprises 6 counties including the capital of Florida. Tallahassee Memorial Healthcare is a highly rated 772 bed acute care hospital with multiple residency and specialty care centers serving North Florida and South Georgia. Therapy dog teams have been working in the hospital and associated facilities since 2005. As of the spring of 2023, 36 different courthouse therapy dog teams are serving the Second Judicial Circuit. Since our inception in 2007, 86 different courthouse therapy dog teams have served the Second Circuit.

The Tallahassee Memorial Animal Therapy (TMAT) program currently has approximately 200 trained volunteer therapy teams working in over 80 facilities, including hospitals, rehab facilities, schools and courts. Select TMAT teams with a minimum of six months of experience can qualify to take additional coursework to be able to work in the courts (see the Tallahassee Memorial Animal Therapy Program website for more information on certification training, testing and requirements). 

Of the approximately 200 teams currently certified with TMAT, 36 are also Florida Courthouse Therapy Dogs and are currently working in the courts. Teams generally begin working in dependency (family) court before they begin working in criminal court. Each courthouse therapy dog team is certified and backed by $3 million in liability insurance. Note: there have never been any incidents nor claims filed against any of our teams. Courthouse Therapy Dog teams are safe!

All Courthouse Therapy Dog teams have handlers who are highly trained volunteers, ready to assist the court whenever called upon. All handlers undergo thorough background checks and sign oaths of confidentiality. There is never a cost to the courts for courthouse therapy dog teams. Our trained teams arrive when called upon and serve to reduce the anxiety of the witness, enabling them to tell their story to the professionals. This leaves the professionals to focus on their jobs and their clients. 

Typically, a prosecutor, victim advocate, or other officer of the court will contact us to request a team for a specific case. Our director will then connect one of our teams with the requesting court professional, and arrangements to meet with the prosecutor and/or victim advocate and their clients (generally child victims of sexual violence). That team continues working that case throughout the judicial process until completion.

Most of our work is done outside the courtroom and long before any trial—meeting the victim/witness and family and establishing a connection between the witness and the dog, preparing for various hearings and deposition, and—if the case requires—accompany the witness into the courtroom during testimony.

During trial, our teams wait outside the courtroom with the witness until it is time for them to testify. The jury is then excused from the court, and the victim advocate and the team will accompany the witness to the witness box. Then the team will move to the back of the gallery before the jury returns to the courtroom. The team is never introduced to the jury nor made part of the trial. Therefore, it is not necessary to have to explain their presence to the jury nor otherwise introduce the dog without compromising the fairness of the process to the defendant.

Upon the completion of the testimony, the jury will again be excused from the court. The team will then go up to the witness box to accompany the witness as they exit the courtroom; the team will then spend as much time with the witness as is necessary to help them decompress from the trauma of testifying. Sometimes the team is requested to continue working after a trial with a child and their therapist, as the child begins the road to healing.

As a result of our protocols, there has never been an appeal nor mistrial of any case related to the use of therapy dogs in any of the hundreds of proceedings over the years. Florida Courthouse Therapy Dog team have never had any negative incidents; rather, our history is marked by 14 years of success enabling victims and witnesses feel comfortable enough to tell their stories.

This is why Florida’s State Attorney for the Second Circuit considers Courthouse Therapy Dog Teams to be such a valuable resource when working with vulnerable victims and witnesses. Because it works!