Courthouse Dogs Foundation Promotes The Use Of Dogs To Comfort Witnesses

The dogs can keep victims — especially children — calm enough to testify during an otherwise stressful trial.

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Molly is one of the dogs specially trained to comfort witnesses during legal proceedings. Via Courthouse Dogs Foundation/Facebook
Molly is one of the dogs specially trained to comfort witnesses during legal proceedings. Via Courthouse Dogs Foundation/Facebook

Whether you’ve had to testify in court before or haven’t gotten any closer than a Law & Order marathon, you can still appreciate how stressful that situation can be. But for victims who have to face their attackers in open court, the situation can become emotionally unbearable.

Ellen O’Neill Stephens, a retired prosecutor, and Celeste Walsen, a veterinarian, believe that the key to keeping victims calm enough to testify could be allowing a special kind of therapy dog in the courtroom. The two have co-founded Courthouse Dogs, an organization that advocates for placing dogs in that uniquely stressful environment to provide emotional support.

“When a person is reliving a traumatic event, they experience physiological reactions similar to what they had when the event was taking place,” Stephens told Upworthy. “This adversarial system [of testifying in front of your attacker] is brutal.”

Women, shortly before their Reddit AMA. Via Courthouse Dogs Foundation/Facebook

Ellen O’Neill Stephens and Celeste Walsen, shortly before their Reddit AMA last week. Via Courthouse Dogs Foundation/Facebook

That’s where the dogs come in. These dogs, which are typically Labradors or Golden Retrievers, have undergone at least two years of specialized training to ensure that they remain calm even in the most stressful environments. After completing their schooling, the dogs are then sent out to prosecutors or defense attorneys (where they could be used during interviews) or to the courtrooms themselves. During court proceedings, the dog typically sits at the witness’s feet, close enough to keep them calm while they give their testimony. Courthouse Dogs says that there are around 87 dogs being used this way in 28 states.

“We believe that the dogs should be available to anyone who would find difficulty in participating in legal proceedings because doing so would cause them emotional distress,” Stephens and Walsen said during a Reddit AMA last week.

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