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Courthouse Dogs

Being a victim of crime is traumatizing under any circumstances, when a child is a victim it's that much more devastating. It is much harder...

Horst Hoefinger  |  Aug 20th 2009


Being a victim of crime is traumatizing under any circumstances, when a child is a victim it’s that much more devastating. It is much harder for children to express themselves, especially in molestation cases, so this is where a program called Courthouse Dogs steps in.

Founder Ellen O’Neill-Stephens uses well-behaved dogs to act as companions for traumatized victims of child abuse. Dogs are used to help calm a child’s nerves and to help them talk about things they may not be comfortable saying to an adult.

We know this works well with reading programs where dogs are used to help children with reading difficulties. Those kids are often afraid to read out loud for fear of being ostracized by their peers, but stick a dog in front of them and all of a sudden they start reading. After all, dogs never criticize.

“Sometimes, these children will say things to the dog that they’re too embarrassed to say to a person,” Stephens said. “We had a girl who had been severely abused and she could never talk about it. But she petted Jeeter for over 90 minutes straight and she was able to tell what happened.”

It’s not easy to become a courthouse dog, only about 30 percent of dogs in training actually make it. Usually golden or Labrador retrievers are used, trainers start working with them when they’re only 8 weeks old and training continue for about 18 months.

For instance, the courtroom dogs are trained not to respond if food is thrown at their feet. In fact, she said they won’t eat at all until they’re given direct permission to do so. And they will stay still for long periods of time, which is often necessary when a child is testifying.

“In a forensic interview, our dogs will just lie there and be available to be petted,” Stephens said. “These dogs have to be able to be able to tolerate that kind of thing. A pet will want to get up and run around, or will want to engage with the child. The forensic investigators don’t want that. If a child were to go into an interview room and start playing with a dog, then it’s over.”

Courthouse Dogs is in Washington State, unfortunately, this isn’t a nationwide program. Not all courtrooms allow dogs, which is a shame because they have been proven to be an invaluable asset.

You can read more about Courthouse Dogs on Dallas News.It was in Dallas at the 21st annual Crimes Against Children Conference, sponsored by the Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center and the Dallas Police Department, that Stephens spoke about her program.

*Pic courtesy COURTNEY PERRY/DMN