Courthouse Dogs: Love and Order

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Ellie, a Labrador retriever mix from Seattle, was the first professionally trained facility dog to join forces with a prosecutor’s office, trained for what was then a new canine occupation. As an official member of the judicial system, Ellie came to court to sit with and help calm people as they testified in court.

These dogs, called “courthouse dogs” or “facility dogs,” are not service or emotional support dogs, trained to assist one individual. Instead, these dogs stay next to witnesses during trials, dispositions or trial preparation, helping calm people who are often testifying about traumatic experiences. The presence of these dogs can help keep the vulnerable from shutting down during testimony, often children or those recounting rape or domestic abuse.

Since Ellie started her work, more that half the states have passed legislation to allow such dogs, but it’s up to district attorneys, county attorneys and individual judges in these states as to when these dogs can do their job. In December 2019, Congresswoman Mary Gay Scanlon and Senator John Cornyn introduced the Courthouse Dogs Act, which would allow anyone in a federal criminal proceeding to ask for a certified courthouse dog to stay with a witness inside a court, as they testify.

Sheri Soltes, founder and president, Service Dogs Inc., said that when choosing a canine candidate, one of the main things is temperament testing. “We look for dogs that are resilient, dogs that don’t get upset around a lot of people who are stressed and dogs that, at the end of a work day, don’t get depressed. Part of our mission is to help dogs. We adopt from shelters and rescue organizations. We look for adult dogs who need a second chance.”

The practice of dogs helping courtroom witnesses is not without controversy. Defense lawyers have argued, some successfully, that the presence of a sweet-looking dog can prejudice the jury, sending unconscious messages about the truth of witness testimony. Some defense lawyers have appealed their client’s convictions using the argument that juries and even judges could be swayed by the presence of these dogs.

To make sure that this doesn’t happen, in some courts and jurisdictions, defense teams put restrictions on courtroom use, ensuring that a fuzzy canine face will not sway jury members. In these cases, the handler is elsewhere and those testifying, even children, hold the leash in the witness box where the dogs cannot be seen. Courthouse dogs also are trained to be silent, often for long periods of time.

Pam Traylor, a victim’s assistance staff member at the Montgomery County, Texas, DA’s office, helped introduce courthouse dogs to her jurisdiction. Traylor retired a year ago but her dog, Sumi, still works there and shares his home with Traylor. Her first courthouse dog, Ranger, began work in 2012. “We paved the way for dogs in courthouses here,” she said. “I started working with victims 24 years ago and the dogs made such a huge difference. Having a dog there helps victims feel safe, to open up and help them trust us. They are able to get up in front of the person who hurt them and testify against them.”

A four-year old Labrador retriever named East had been slated to work as a lead dog for the blind but dropped out of the program because of her habit of foraging after anything on the ground. Instead, she was sent to Service Dogs, Inc., in Dripping Springs, Texas, to train for other work. East now works with Lisa Mehrhoff, a professional victim assistance coordinator for Parker County.
Mehrhoff had advocated for the dogs to work there but found that trained courthouse dogs could cost up to $40,000. Then she learned about Service Dogs, Inc., which provided dogs free of charge to those who qualify. She applied and was accepted. In a recent case, said Mehrhoff, “We had a disabled girl who’d just turned 18, whose mother had passed away. She was very close to her mother’s best friend. She was at her mother’s friend’s house watching TV and eating popcorn,” said Mehroff. When the woman left the room, her husband came over, pinned the girl down and forcibly kissed her.

Once the case went to court, the girl was so traumatized, she could barely speak until East joined her, sitting on the floor with her, the girl’s arms wrapped around the dog. “She wanted to go forward and could as long as East was with her. It turned out that this man had a long history of this sort of thing.”

“I tell you, that East is absolutely amazing. East knows when something is wrong. When attorneys come in at the end of a stressful day, they lay down their stuff and sit with her.”
“I’m incredibly proud of East,” she said. “Every day is a feel-good day with East.” ■

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