Why Dogs Are Getting a Bigger Role in Courtrooms

courthouse facility dog

Around the country, more and more certified facility dogs, better known as “courthouse dogs,” are taking the witness stand along with children and victims of violent crimes. They provide comfort and a furry head to scratch during what are often very stressful proceedings.

These dogs can also help calm distressed jurors, as a yellow Lab named Turks did during the 2018 sexual assault trial of Bill Cosby in Pennsylvania. Turks has worked for the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office since 2014, providing comfort to crime victims and witnesses.

More recently, last month a Goldendoodle named Izzy, who was rescued from a terrible hoarding situation, became a facility dog for the Macomb County Juvenile Court in Detroit.

“We deal with a lot of kids with mental health problems,” Nicole Faulds, juvenile division administrator, told the Detroit Free Press. “Court itself is kinda scary for those kids. She can be in on the office visit or a calming influence in the courtroom.”

As of November 2019, 234 courthouse facility dogs like Turks and Izzy are working their magic in 40 U.S. states, according to the Courthouse Dog Foundation. Eleven states — Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Maryland, Oklahoma and Virginia — have legislation allowing these dogs to accompany children and some adult crime victims on the witness stand.

In some states, judges can decide whether to allow the dogs on the witness stand, and many of them do. Other countries like Australia, Belgium, Canada, Chile, England, France and Italy are also using courthouse facility dogs.

While trained dogs providing comfort in the courtroom may seem like a great idea, there are those who oppose it — and not too surprisingly, they happen to be defense attorneys. Some of them believe the dogs could sway juries.

“This could interfere with a person’s right to a fair trial,” Randy Gioia, deputy chief counsel for Massachusett’s public defender agency, told the Boston Herald in regard to a 2018 bill (SD.2628) that would have legalized courthouse facility dogs in the state. “It introduces an unknown element. It could give the witness an aura of vulnerability and credibility, and that’s a problem for a person accused of a crime.”

Defense attorney Peter Elikann told the Boston Herald that a witness showing up in court with a dog “signals to the jury that they need it because something bad has happened. It allows them to presume that the person is being truthful and genuinely a victim.”

A dog in the courtroom “could send subtle messages to the jury that they should protect, support and empathize with the witness,” said Brad Bailey, a defense attorney and former prosecutor, told the newspaper. “I would be very concerned about this.”

In an effort to prevent any possibility of these dogs swaying juries, the Courthouse Dog Foundation has worked with courts to establish a procedure where the witness and dog enter the witness stand while the jurors are excused. During proceedings, the dogs lie very quietly in the witness box and are “virtually invisible to the jury,” Ellen O’Neill Stephens, a former prosecutor and the founder of the foundation, told NBC Los Angeles in 2015.

The role of facility dogs is not the same as that of service dogs. They don’t assist people with special needs, and each facility dog helps a variety of people rather than just one person. They are required to receive two years of training and must be graduates of a school that’s accredited by Assistance Dogs International. The dogs’ handlers, with whom they live, are usually employed in the criminal justice field.

Did having Turks in the courtroom influence Bill Cosby’s guilty verdict? No, according to one juror, who said his decision was based on Cosby’s own admission that he gave young women quaaludes in order to have sex with them.

Photo credit: David Walsen

Portions of this story were originally published on Care2.com.

Laura Goldman

I am a freelance writer and lifelong dog lover. For five years, I was a staff writer for i Love Dogs. When that site shut down, I started this blog...because I STILL Love Dogs!