by Mona Mistric
Testifying in court, sitting in front of a judge with a room full of strangers, is not something anyone chooses to do – it’s scary and anxiety levels can be very high. The successful prosecution of a criminal court case often depends on the ability of the victim to give a deposition, provide forensic evidence and then testify about the details. With victims – especially if they have been traumatized – this can be extremely difficult. Having to retell what happened often causes the victim to relive the horror all over again. A lot of cases never make it to court and are closed because victims – especially children – can’t, or won’t, talk. How can the prosecutor do his job and seek justice when victims are too afraid to speak?
Pediatricians, therapists, sociologists and psychologists have devoted years to researching the physiological benefits of human-animal interactions. These studies have provided overwhelming evidence animals, especially dogs, provide a calming effect on both the physical and psychological states of humans. Dogs have a natural ability to calm humans, which decreases anxiety and lessens the nervous arousal system.
The dog’s non-judgmental, silent acceptance reduces blood pressure, lowers heart rate, decreases depression, improves feelings of self-worth, increases speech and memory functions, and heightens mental clarity. Scientific research has shown that a dog’s gaze or physical contact increases oxytocin in the human brain; increasing trust, evoking feelings of contentment, reducing anxiety, and replacing those feelings with calmness and security.
Dogs brighten the spirits of children and adults. Victims and witnesses are much more at ease and more willing to reveal what happened when a dog is present. The rhythmic action of stroking the dog’s fur is calming and helps facilitate the victim’s ability to engage in conversation. Petting the dog during questioning makes everyone (including jurors) feel as though they are having a conversation instead of grilling the victim. This is especially important when the victim is a child.
The human–animal bond is strong and evidence of its power is now being seen in the courtrooms with the aid of the courthouse facility dog. In many cases, the legal process is improved by the presence of a dog because it improves the victim’s testimony by:
1. Redirecting focus on meeting the dog instead of being apprehensive about the interview.
2. Being a source of comfort during a forensic interview.
3. Reducing anxiety levels during the defense interview (testing a witness for weaknesses or inconsistencies before making a decision whether or not to take a case to trial).
4. Reducing the anxiety levels associated with the fear of the court proceedings.
5. Decreasing tension while waiting for a hearing (which can take hours).
6. Bridging the gap in the chasm between an uncommunicative victim and prosecutors.
7. Easing the person’s nerves to be better able to describe the abuse.
8. Dissipating the feeling of shame for participants struggling with substance abuse treatment court.
9. Soothing sufferers of anxiety attacks and other mental health issues.
10. Calming anxious witnesses testifying in the courtroom.
11. Lowering the stress when facing the defendant at sentencing.
Since 2003, the use of courthouse facility dogs has been spreading throughout the United States. As of September 16, 2016, there were 127 courthouse facility dogs in 34 states. Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, and Oklahoma have statutes concerning the special training required for a dog to be able to provide emotional support to witnesses testifying in judicial proceedings. Assistance Dogs International; American Kennel Club; Therapy Dogs Inc.; Courthouse Dogs, Inc. and equivalent organizations (whose main purpose concerns training, placement, and use of assistance dogs) are registered according to national standards.
Assistance Dogs International has a webpage devoted to training standards for courthouse facility dogs and the American Humane Society has posted on their website a manual on animal-assisted therapy in the courtroom, “Therapy Animals Supporting Kids.”
The use of courthouse facility dogs in prosecutor’s offices – and particularly in courtrooms – is still in its infancy; however, the benefits are obvious and the trend is growing. We can all hope that someday soon, this setting will be the comforting norm for all vulnerable victims and witnesses.
Courthouse Facility Dogs’ Work Comforts All and Includes:
• Greeting the general public coming in and out of the courthouse.
• Greeting children and parents who have come to initiate an investigation of child sexual abuse.
• Accompanying a child during a forensic interview, where the child explains the details of an
incident of sexual abuse or a crime of violence.
• Accompanying a child during a defense interview, a competency hearing, and a courtroom trial.
• Accompanying vulnerable adult crime victims, including rape victims, developmentally delayed
adults and the elderly during court proceedings.
• Accompanying witnesses afraid to speak up about what they saw.
• Providing emotional comfort to family members of homicide victims during the trial and
sentencing of the offender.
• Attending drug court to calm individuals in drug withdrawal.
• Attending mental health court, and other restorative justice proceedings to provide an element
of calm to people with disabilities.
• Exhibiting calm to judges, lawyers, victim advocates, and court staff – who deal with
the horrible consequences of crime daily – to boost morale.