By Dr. Becker
Mr. Weeber, a black lab support dog, accompanied a young girl and her brother into a Michigan courtroom as they testified against their uncle in a sexual assault case. Such dogs are specially trained to provide comfort to witnesses, particularly children.
The defendant appealed the case, however, claiming that the jury may have been influenced by Mr. Weeber's presence, which the suit called "inherently prejudicial."
Earlier this year, a Michigan Court of Appeals rejected the claim, however, noting that he stayed quietly at the children's feet during the trial and stating that the judge had the authority to allow the dog into the courtroom to assist and protect the witnesses.1, 2
Court Rules Support Dogs Allowed in the Courtroom
The ruling now sets a legal precedent that may mark the beginning of more frequent use of support dogs in courtrooms. In the Michigan case, the court noted, as reported by Michigan Radio:3
"There is no indication that Mr. Weeber was visible to the jury while the witnesses testified, or that he barked, growled, or otherwise interrupted the proceedings or made his presence known to the jury."
Many judges allow support dogs into courtrooms to help calm vulnerable witnesses. In Michigan, for instance, 19 support dogs have appeared in court along with four additional dogs that work in Michigan's veterans courts.4
Support dogs have also been used in Canadian courtrooms, including in a 2014 case similar to the Michigan trial. In that case, a young girl and her brother testified in a sexual assault trial accompanied by a trauma therapy dog named Hawk.
Having Hawk in the courtroom reportedly gave the girl a sense of support and comfort, making the difficult situation a little bit easier. While there are at least three other trauma dogs in Canada, Hawk was the first to be used in a courtroom setting.5
Why Professionally Trained Support Dogs Are Recommended for Court
While it's well known that support dogs offer stress and anxiety relief, there is some controversy over using such dogs in courtrooms. Defense attorneys have argued that the presence of a dog could make jurors more sympathetic to the witness or indirectly increase their credibility.
For this reason, it's imperative that the dog remains quiet and does not draw undue attention. Generally, professionally trained dogs, as opposed to pet therapy dogs with volunteer handlers, are recommended for courtroom cases.
According to Courthouse Dogs Foundation, which provides technical assistance and training for agencies interested in using a dog for legal proceedings, dogs in a courtroom must:6
- Be quiet, unobtrusive, and emotionally available for the witness when the need arises
- Be able to sit or lie down beside the witness for an extended period of time
- Not engage in any behavior that would distract the witness or other people in the courtroom
- Be able to assist the witness for as long as necessary
In addition to the courtroom, support dogs may be used in forensic interviews, child advocacy centers, defense interviews, treatment courts (where participants often struggle with substance abuse and mental health issues) and CASA (court appointed special advocates) for children programs.
Dogs Trigger the Release of Stress-Reducing Oxytocin Hormone
There's ample scientific evidence to support the benefit of having a dog accompany witnesses during a stressful court trial. For instance, research published in the journal Science revealed spikes of the hormone oxytocin are triggered by mutual gazes between a dog and its owner.7
Oxytocin reduces stress responses and anxiety while increasing feelings of trust, relaxation and bonding. It turns out these feelings are shared not only among human couples and mother-child pairs but also among different species, including people and dogs.
Dogs' calming effects are so strong that sometimes support dogs are not even required to be in close proximity to the witness. For instance, they may simply be in the witness' line of sight while testifying, although in some cases the dog may lie in the witness stand at the witness' feet.
Are You Interested in Finding a Service Dog?
There are many types of service dogs available, including to support adults and children outside of the courtroom.
If you have a physical or mental disability and you believe your life could be improved by the services of a therapy dog, your first step should be to get a letter from your physician stating what your disability is and supporting the need for a service animal.
From there, you'll need to contact a local organization that trains the type of service dog you need. Wolf Packs has a list of service dog trainers by state, which is a good place to start.8 You can also contact the individual groups below for further information about their programs:9