Courthouse dogs help children through trauma

February 19, 2014 • Local News

Molly B. came to Roswell to visit with employees at the Chaves County Courthouse on Jan. 14. She stayed to assist with stressed students and parents after the Berrendo Middle School shooting. (Courtesy Photo)

Several dogs became stars during the Berrendo Middle School crisis.

Black Lab Molly B. came down with her handler to introduce officials at Chaves County 5th District Court to courthouse dogs, but ended up some place quite different as events began to unfold on Jan. 14.

Molly B. was assisted by Emma, the much-beloved CASA dog, Roswell resident and dog about town, who often comes into the courts to calm victims or the family members of victims.

Ellen O’Neill-Stephens, founder of Courthouse Dogs Foundation, states that there is a difference between courthouse dogs, or courthouse-facility dogs, and therapy dogs.

She commented on the gentleman who drove his therapy dogs from California to help at Berrendo. She acknowledged his disappointment when he was denied entrance into the school, but said that in a high security situation, only a courthouse dog would do.

The courthouse dog’s handler has to be a working professional in the criminal justice field, such as a victim advocate, a detective, a forensic interviewer, a prosecutor or an assistant prosecutor.

O’Neill-Stephens served as a deputy prosecuting attorney in Seattle, Wash., for 26 years, where [auth] she saw how much help dogs could be in providing emotional support within the criminal justice system. She retired in November of 2011.

She said that a trained courthouse or facility dog, such as Molly B. or Emma, needs to be able to adapt to any number of different work environments.

The dog may assist with forensic interviews of children who have been sexually assaulted or who have witnessed domestic violence. During the interviews, the dog must lie very quietly beside the child, without interacting or distracting the child.

Courtroom work provides a different set of challenges. The dog needs to comfort the child in the witness box during direct- and cross-examination while remaining unseen. There may be people talking loudly in the courtroom that the dog must ignore.

The courthouse often presents noise and confusion with hand-cuffed prisoners shuffling into the courtroom, crowded elevators and people rushing around in distress. The courthouse dog is also called upon to comfort family members of a homicide.

Dr. Celeste Walsen, DVM, executive director of Courthouse Dogs Foundation, said the training is far different both for the courthouse dog and the handler.

The training programs for courthouse facility dogs are accredited by Assistance Dogs International. The ADI sets standards for organizations, dog trainers and for qualified graduate dogs.

“A therapy dog is usually somebody’s pet and trained by their owner.”

O’Neill-Stephens explained the difference between service dogs and courthouse dogs.

“Service dogs are trained to assist one person with a disability like the seeing-eye dogs for the blind, hearing dogs for the deaf and mobility-assistance dogs. This is why I like the term courthouse-facility dogs. The dogs are trained for a particular facility, a hospital, a school or a court, and are trained to work with many different people that they will run into, while service dogs are trained for an individual’s needs.”

She referred to courthouse dogs as professionals, who were trained by professionals. Courthouse dogs are not only trained, they are bred for temperament and disposition.

“They have to be calm no matter what is happening around them,” she said.

O’Neill-Stephens spoke of one court case where the child victim had suffered through beatings, starvation and abuse.

“Everybody likes dogs. Some judges and defense attorneys feel that a witness accompanied by a dog may be viewed more sympathetically by the jury and as more credible.

“The courthouse facility dog is trained to stay hidden in the witness box where they cannot be seen. … One of the attorneys dumped an entire glass of water on the dog. Three people rushed in to help. This dog didn’t move.”

She joked that the courthouse dog, once it dons its uniform, is always seen lying around.

“People are underwhelmed. They say: ‘You call that working?’”

Walsen works with criminal justice facilities to teach staff members the practicalities of using highly trained dogs in victim and witness-support programs. Each handler has to be specifically trained, and each handler goes through a rigorous series of interviews before they are approved for work with a courthouse dog. Currently, Walsen is developing a set of nationally recognized guidelines for victim advocates, forensic interviewers, prosecuting attorneys, and other legal professionals to effectively employ dogs.

She said the courthouse dog may be seen playing with children before an interview, but once the interview begins, they lay down and remain quiet. “These dogs can’t react,” she said.

Often people, who have only seen them at work, wonder if the dogs get any time for romping and playing. Walsen wanted to assure everyone: “Once they return to their handlers’ home, these dogs are coddled just like any other dog.”

The dogs come from Santa Fe-based Assistance Dogs of the West. O’Neill-Stephens said: “There are 60 courthouse dogs at work in 23 states, and New Mexico is considered one of the pioneers in the nation.”

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