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Editor’s note: On Monday, Rebecca Wallick blogged about what an appeal in New York challenging the use of courtroom dogs might mean  to the practice. Today, she explores the difference between facility dogs and therapy dogs, which is essential to the success of courtroom dog programs.
One concern raised by Courthouse Dogs  founder Ellen O’Neill-Stephens, which I share, is the use of “therapy” dogs in forensic interviews with victims, or in the courtroom or other legal settings. There is a vast difference in training of facility dogs versus therapy dogs. There is also a vast difference in training between interviewer specialists, investigators and prosecutors, and volunteers wanting to be helpful. The former are prepared by training, experience and disposition to deal with the horrors of the stories they hear; the latter aren’t.
O’Neill-Stephens describes a case where a volunteer and her therapy dog were in the lobby of a child advocacy center when the child walked in and immediately started disclosing to the therapy dog’s handler what had happened to her—right there in the lobby. The volunteer, unprepared for the disclosure, was traumatized and required professional counseling. The child had to disclose her ordeal again, to the interview specialist.
In another case, the volunteer and dog were asked to attend the physical exam of the child rape victim. A privacy screen was placed between the volunteer and the child, with the volunteer holding the leash of her dog who was next the child on the exam table. When the child started to cry, the dog put its paws on the table and licked the child, providing comfort. But the evidence was tainted by dog hair and the exam had to be conducted a second time.
Of course, these volunteers and their therapy dogs are well meaning and only trying to help. But the consequences of mistakes can mean re-traumatizing the victim with another interview or exam, or even an inability to file a case because crucial evidence is tainted. Dogs utilized in legal settings should be facility service dogs specially trained for that work by organizations like Canine Companions for Independence (where Jeeter, Ellie, Stilson and Molly B were all trained) or other such programs that are accredited by Assistance Dogs International. Their handlers should be the prosecutors, interviewer specialists, victim advocates and police specialists who also work in the legal arena. Therapy dogs and their handlers, as wonderful as they are, belong in therapy settings.