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Dogs in the Courtroom, Follow-up Part I
Appeal challenges the use of dogs to comfort witnesses
Ashley and Jeeter at work.

On August 8, 2011, The New York Times ran an article about a criminal trial in June where Rosie, a trained facility service dog, was allowed in the courtroom. The case required that a 15-year-old girl testify about her father raping and impregnating her. Rosie, New York’s first judicially approved courtroom dog, sat at the teen’s feet as she testified.

The next evening, NBC Nightly News closed with a segment highlighting the use of facility service dogs in courtrooms to help victims—especially children—testify during trial. The spot included video of Ellie, one of the dogs I profiled for my article “Dogs in the Courtroom,” which was published in Bark’s May/June 2007 issue. It also included an interview with Ellen O’Neill-Stephens with her courthouse dog Molly B. O’Neill-Stephens’ disabled son’s service dog Jeeter was first used in a courtroom setting here in Washington State in 2003 and got this whole concept rolling. She has gone on, with Celeste Walsen DVM, to create Courthouse Dogs LLC, to promote the careful and thoughtful use of facility service dogs in legal settings—from forensic interviews to the courtroom. To date, ten states are allowing dogs in the courtroom. Countries such as Chile, Australia and Canada have asked Courthouse Dogs for assistance setting up programs.

The NBC News segment was prompted by the uproar Rosie caused, doing her job in that New York courtroom. Much was made of the fact that the defense team was going to appeal, in part because of the use of Rosie. One of the defense attorneys claimed that each time the victim stroked the dog during her testimony the jury would think she was under stress because she was telling the truth.

Well, yeah. Asking a child to recount a horrific event in a courtroom full of strangers, with her abuser staring at her, and defense counsel questioning her, is stressful. Historically, children have been allowed comfort items—blankets, dolls, teddy bears—while testifying. Or a support person—perhaps a relative, or victim advocate—in the observer’s section of the courtroom but within eyesight of the victim, to help calm them. These aids have withstood appeal.

As O’Neill-Stephens points out, “The dogs are often completely out of sight in the witness box, at the victim’s feet. Typically the victim simply holds the leash in their hands, which provides a sense of control for them, or they might bend down occasionally to stroke the dog’s head.” Done correctly, the use of a facility service dog in court to aid the victim would be less visible to a jury than comfort items. And certainly, the dog can’t be accused of trying to sway the jury with body language, or coaching the victim as she testifies, as some support persons have been.

As an attorney, I know that convictions are routinely appealed, on any and every basis possible. It’s one of the hallmarks of our judicial systems, and keeps everyone honest. Rosie simply provides the New York defense team with an additional ground. O’Neill-Stephens isn’t aware of any previous appeal regarding the use of facility service dogs in courtrooms although they have been used in that capacity for several years now. That may be, in part, because appeals can take years to reach full resolution, and the use of dogs in courtrooms in relatively new. Frankly, I welcome the appeals so that the issue can finally be resolved in favor of the use of dogs.

Here in Washington, Mark Roe, Snohomish County Prosecutor, remembers trying a case where he utilized Stilson, the facility dog associated with his office’s victim/witness advocates since 2006 and also profiled in my earlier Bark article. Roe’s case involved an 11-year-old girl testifying against her father, who had sex with her since she was nine. She was reluctant to tell a cop, or an interview specialist; it was gross and embarrassing. But she told Stilson, allowing for charges to be filed.

During pre-trial motions, Roe explained to the judge how Stilson helped the girl talk about her ordeal and sought a ruling allowing Stilson to be at the girl’s feet on the witness stand. Defense counsel objected to Stilson being in the courtroom, arguing that the dog being with the girl as she testified would amount to commenting on the evidence, sending a message to the jury that the judge must believe the girl because he gave her a dog.

As Roe tells it, “Judge Tom Wynne listened to arguments pro and con, and observed Stilson, lying peacefully amid the uproar between the parties. He ruled that Stilson was so unobtrusive that if the State elected, Stilson could be up at the witness stand with the child.” Roe chose to not have Stilson on the stand with the girl, however, because he didn’t want to create a possible appellate issue if the child could get through her testimony without him. Instead, Stilson sat in the back of the courtroom with an advocate, where the girl could see him, and be with him during breaks. “For all the jury knew, the advocate was an observer, and Stilson her dog.” The girl’s father was convicted.

According to Roe, “Service dogs don’t make it possible for us to prosecute child rapists. We have done that for years without animals of any sort. What service dogs do is make it easier on the little kids who have to go in and face the guy who abused them, in front of a room full of strange adults (one dressed kind of like a witch) on a day they don’t get to choose, and talk about icky stuff. Service dogs take something very hard but very important, and they make it easier. They accomplish this without saying a word that can be construed as ‘leading’ or ‘suggesting’ things to the child. They simply provide comfort and something to like about a situation kids don’t like at all.”

O’Neill-Stephens noted that in a recent, very high-profile murder case, the judge initiated a request to use her courthouse dog Molly B. The defendant, charged with rape and murder, was prone to outbursts in the courtroom. “The judge wanted Molly in the courtroom for the entire six weeks of trial. The defense was okay with it,” she said. “After all, courthouse dogs help everyone—jurors, witnesses, courtroom staff, lawyers and defendants—deal with stressful courtroom sessions. Ultimately, prosecutors decided against using Molly B because the case was already packed with possible appellate issues.”

Which is sad. Research shows that just having dogs nearby can calm people and lower their blood pressure. In courtrooms, these dogs could reduce the stress of everyone—judge, jury, clerks, prosecutors and defense counsel, witnesses and observers. Unconditional love for all involved. Where’s the harm?

Williams ended his NBC Nightly News broadcast on August 9, 2011 by saying, “Those are some good dogs.”

I predict that in ten years, this will be a non-issue, and facility dogs will be a regular feature of courthouses across the country.

► Tomorrow in Part II of her follow-up, Rebecca Wallick blogs about the important distinction between facility dogs and therapy dogs in courtroom settings.

Rebecca Wallick is an attorney and a Bark contributing editor; she and her dogs live in Washington.

Photo by Dane+Dane Studios.

CommentsPost a Comment
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Submitted by Reine Adelaide | August 15 2011 |

duh, no brainer. Although this does open the door to allowing attack dogs in to rip the testicles off of rapists...After a conviction, of course.

Submitted by Feyaia | August 24 2011 |

O.M.G. Yes, this is a serous and somber issue but your comment had me laughing and saying, "poetic justice!"

Submitted by Hanna at Dog Pr... | August 17 2011 |

I would really like to see a change in our court system. First and foremost I’d like to see that something is done about frivolous law suits. Beyond that and more relevant to this post, I’d like to see the system make it more difficult to appeal. After all, appealing because a service dog gave a measure of comfort to an abused child is utterly ridiculous and defies any kind of logic.

Just as service dogs are accepted or tolerated in medical facilities, public offices, etc.; it goes without saying that they should also be incorporated into courthouses.

By the way, I love your blog and I visit it frequently. I have also incorporated your link within my DogProducts.org site as a valuable resource for my visitors. Would you be willing to return the favor by placing my link right here on your blog?


Submitted by Anonymous | August 18 2011 |

Let me start by saying I do not claim to be an expert,why? Once you feel you know everything about a subject (Ms.ONeil) you will stop learning.
I`ve been training dogs for abt 17 yrs, pet therapy which should be referred to as AAT,AAA or AAI. I have been involved for 7 of those 17 yrs in AAT,AAI.I have been around many types of different AAA,AAT,&AAI. I started our court room AAT in Nov 2010 and appearing in 15 cases, intakes,depo`s, and court. I am the Pet Therapy Chairman at our hospital and a Delta Society evaluator. I have completed CGC,TDI,Delta Society testing.
Now let me get to the meat of the subject. I`m sure Ms ONeal is a good trainer for service dogs and she has made a few very good points. But, what bothers me about what she has said is NOT TOTALLY CORRECT!!
What is the meaning of service dog? that dog must go through thousands of hrs to learn whatever TASK they will be performing for ONE INDIVIDUAL. It`s a service dog & it should be performing a service!!
For Ms. ONeal to say that pet therapy dogs belong in pet therapy is absolutely incorrect. She needs to become more educated in understanding what it takes to be a HANDLER. This is where the issue lies in this article. Any great dog MUST have a great handler!!!

Ms ONeal basically said she is training a service dog to do what every dog already does & that is use their instincts of smell and once they smell fear almost any dog will react to the fear smell. Frankly, it sounds to me that it`s about making money, after all who knows what the cost of a dog to do long downs,stays, and use their nose would be??
What needs to be said is this, first you MUST GO THROUGH Delta testing,not CGC or TDI they are not adequate testing for AAT,AAI,& AAA. In our court program even if you pass Delta you are not taken in until we have shadow both handler/dog & team.I even had to take a Delta handler/dog team out of my hospital, it happens. I tell everyone that takes Delta testing. If you expect your dog to be successful the handler must become VERY PROACTIVE. Reactive or inactive does not cut it. Even then, it must be a TEAM working together to create an environment that a child or adult would feel very comfort with. And that means the handling of things that are just horrible to hear. How often has anyone seen a joyful wagging tail looking to anyone to engage them & it was a service dog.Not many! By the way, most Delta dogs would not do well in many different environments, but to say they are qualified for courtrooms is WRONG!!

Submitted by Anonymous | August 24 2011 |

PLEASE, PLEASE use correct, legal terminology. The public is already confused enough without the media (and a lawyer nonetheless) conveying incorrect information . Service animals are legally defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the key is they are individually trained to assist a person with a DISABILITY to mitigate that disability. No disability - not a service dog. Why is that important? Because a person with a disability has the right for their service dog to accompany them wherever the general public is allowed, including restaurants, stores, medical appointments, etc. Link to ADA regulations: http://www.ada.gov/service_animals_2010.htm

It doesn't matter if the courtroom dog is trained to the same standards as a service dog or by a service dog organization (or else everyone would take their well trained dog out as a "service dog"). Call these dogs "courtroom dogs" or "facility dogs" but NOT "facility service dogs".

Submitted by Rebecca | August 24 2011 |

As a defense attorney (and a former prosecutor)who has actually tried sex cases, I think that the dogs are a distraction. While I think that in theory (and I'm sure in practice) having the dogs there to soothe the child witness is beneficial to the witness, I do think that it could unduly influence the jury to be more sympathetic to a witness. And that's just not fair.
Perhaps juvenile defendants (and yes, believe it or not some ARE innocent and wrongfully accused) who are going through the traumatic experience of a trial should be permitted to have a dog sit next to them, too.

Submitted by Kathy | August 24 2011 |

I would invite you to look at the website for courtroom dogs as they reference just your suggestion.

Submitted by Ellen O'Neill-S... | August 24 2011 |

Courthouse dogs are for everyone including defendants. If a witness can demonstrate to the judge that having the dog, if one is available, would make it easier for the witness to describe what happened to the jury, then the dog should be available. The National Crime Victim Law Institute is in agreement with this philosophy.

Currently there is case law and state statutes that permit a judge to accommodate a vulnerable witness who has to testify in court by allowing a child to hold a comfort item like a teddy bear or have a support person in the vicinity of the witness. The defense usually makes the same argument that these accommodations are distracting or make the witness more sympathetic to the jury.

Facility Service Dogs, who are trained to assist many people,and do not fall under the ADA, are able to lie on the floor barely moving while the witness testifies. Quite often they are totally or partially covered by the witness box. A prosecutor would avoid trying to make the dog cute and cuddly because that could cause a mistrial or raise that issue on appeal.


Submitted by Columbia | August 24 2011 |

I'm familiar with the use of dogs to provide a calm attention point for people testifying who suffer from Severe/Persistent Mental Illness. The dogs simply exist in the courtroom, the person is able to focus on the dog while answering both the DA and defense attorney's questions. Much less stressful and much more productive for all concerned.

Both the cases cited were children, but the technique works for adults, and for both defense and prosecution. If defense close-questioned and set off a child that would be so much more prejudicial to the outcome.

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