Even if a victim doesn’t have to testify at trial because the defendant pleads guilty, they may still have to face the defendant at sentencing. Preparing for—and anticipating—the sentencing can be highly stressful. Jessica Haight, 24, is a rape victim who spoke at the sentencing of her abuser in a recent Snohomish County case. “I thought I was going to be a strong chick at sentencing,” she said, “but I was fixated on the guy. I started crying. I didn’t understand why the victim advocate asked if I wanted Stilson in the courtroom with me. But they brought him in and he laid his head on my foot. I noticed I was playing with his ears. I’m pretty sure I rubbed a bald spot on his ear!”
As Jessica spoke by phone from the victim advocate’s office for this interview, Stilson was lying on her foot. Jessica had “a million and one dogs” growing up, and has two now. Still, “I never would have thought of a therapy dog helping me. I saw guide dogs for the blind. But, me? I enjoyed [having] him in the courtroom. It was an extremely positive experience. It changed how I think about dogs, about therapy dogs. It should be a victim’s right to have a therapy dog in the courtroom.”
That thought is echoed by every prosecutor, victim/witness advocate, victim and legal system player who has seen these amazing dogs in action. Their use in prosecutor’s offices—and particularly in courtrooms—is still in its infancy, yet the benefits are clear and the trend is growing. We can all hope that someday soon, service dogs in this setting will be the comforting norm.
Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) is a nonprofit organization that enhances the lives of people with disabilities by providing highly trained assistance dogs and ongoing support to ensure quality partnerships. See their site for regional and satellite office locations.
Rebecca Wallick, a long-time Bark contributing editor, is executive director of McPaws Regional Animal Shelter in McCall, Idaho.