The Good Boys of the Judicial System
How courtrooms are using service dogs to help victims of crime.
Walker from Spokane via Facebook
With the news that the Spokane police force is launching a sexual assault helpline, and offering the use of a support dog named Walker, it seemed time to find the other good boys and girls employed by courts to ease victims of crime.
The first case of a courthouse facility dog was reported in 2003 at the King County Courthouse in Seattle, Washington. Jeeter, a white Labrador, was brought in to help two young twin girls testify in a court case against their father.
Jeeter and her handler, Ashley via Seattle Dog Spot
“While we were waiting in the hall to testify, he approached the girls and placed his head on their laps,” said the girls’ mother. “He knew they needed him then.”
Since then, dogs have been brought into multiple courthouses worldwide to help victims tell their stories with a bit of ease.
Lol, the black Labrador who lives at the local fire station, has worked at the Cahors courthouse in southwest France for two years.
Good boy Lol, with Prosecutor Frédéric Almendros via BBC
Prosecutor Frédéric Almendros heard about a court in Seattle using dogs as a support feature under challenging cases and decided to try it out for himself.
“After examining a case I call for the dog’s help if I believe its comforting presence will help victims open up about what happened, or even when they have to testify in court,” he told the BBC. “The dog sitting next to them in court has often helped victims handle the stress of a trial.”
The dogs must be trained and certified to be allowed into court and are accompanied by a qualified trainer. However, some attorneys have protested the use of dogs in their cases.
In 2018, a Denver defence lawyer told the Chicago Tribune, “I think it distracts the jurors from what their job is, which is to determine the truthfulness of the testimony. It tends to imply or infer that there has been some victimization. It tends to engender sympathy. It’s highly prejudicial.”
Another good girl is Coop, who works in Melbourne, Australia. By 2019, she’d helped over 140 people, mainly in sexual assault cases. Her owner, Tessa Stow, has first-hand experience of giving evidence in a stressful case.
Coop via ABC News
“In 1988 I was involved in giving evidence in a traumatic case and I found it really really hard to do,” Tessa told ABC. “Not long after that, I became a vet nurse and really saw the impact and power that animals had on their owners.”
Soon after that, Tessa bought Coop and began to train her to help in the courts.
“I started doing some research and saw that there was nothing happening in Australia, but yet in America and Canada programs have been running since 2003 where dogs support people in court,” Tessa said. “I began to think, well, could we do something here?”
From there, Coop began working for the Office of Public Prosecutions, and now Tessa is training the next group of court dogs, readying them for courts across Australia.
Marybeth from Yamhill County, Oregon, helped a seven year old get through the sentencing of the man who had just been convicted of sexually assaulting her.
Marybeth from Yamhill County via Facebook
The courthouse dog’s duties aren’t just reserved for children though.
Just the day before, Marybeth spent the majority of her working day comforting the family of a murder victim while they were interviewed by detectives.
For the victims and their families who don’t choose to be involved in the system, support dogs are an important tool in comfort and solace in an, often, alien setting.
“Psychologists say the Labrador has proven time and time again the medical advantage — as having a dog in court reduces stress levels for everyone,” Huguette Tiegna, La République en Marche MP told the BBC.
You’ll notice they’re all Labradors or Golden Retrievers, just like many service animals. The breeds are easy to train because they’re a working breed of dog. They also have a calm temperament and are good with children.
Sadly, Jeeter died in November 2015 on her 13th birthday. She leaves behind an incredible legacy. At the time of her death, there were 78 courthouse dogs in 28 states in the United States, and that number has continued to rise.