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Dogs in the Courtroom, Follow-up Part II
Facility dogs versus therapy dogs—critical distinction
There is a big difference between dogs trained for court room settings (left) and therapy dogs.

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.

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 Anonymous | August 17 2011 |

because therapy dogs shed and facility service dogs don't, right?

Submitted by Anonymous | August 18 2011 |

Wow! Let's not throw the puppy out with the bath water! Who left the volunteer alone with the child disclosing details of her abuse?! Who would invite a stranger into a physical exam?!

There's a place for facility dogs AND therapy dogs in the judicial process. It's unfortunate that poor training and lack of common sense on the part of the humans involved has cast a negative light on the use of therapy dogs for these children. Perhaps other states should take the lead from Florida, which now has a law authorizing the use of service OR therapy animals in courts hearing sexual offense cases under certain circumstances. With proper protocol and training, more of our children can be helped at less cost to the community.

Let's not ruin a good thing!

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