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Banning Courtroom Therapy Dogs

Order in the court! In a recent Poughkeepsie, New York, courtroom, one dog has created quite the uproar. Courtroom therapy dogs being banned? Could it be true?

Rosie is a Golden Retriever who helped comfort a 15-year-old girl during a recent case. The girl claimed her father raped her, resulting in pregnancy. When the teenager broke down and was visibly upset, Rosie was there to comfort and nuzzle her. With a guilty verdict at the end of the trial, the teenager thanked Rosie for helping her through the trauma of testifying.

The defense team is crying foul, stating courtroom therapy dogs may unfairly sway jurors due to their adorable and empathetic nature — whether or not the witness is being truthful — and that jurors are more likely to render a guilty verdict. Public defenders arguing this case are hopeful it will be taken to New York’s Supreme Court for review.

In the June issue of FIDO Friendly magazine, I interviewed Dan Cojanu, who works with Amos, a courtroom support dog of the Canine Advocacy Program. Amos assists children who were sexually assaulted in both courtroom and group settings. Amos is allowed in the witness box and works with children prior to testifying and in the decompression after the harrowing process.

I asked Cojanu what difference he saw in the kids when working with Amos and he shared, “Our program helps the child, the court, and everyone involved in the criminal justice system.  A dog brings a sense of security that cannot be duplicated even by professionals in the field.”

Kids in these situations must share the most intimate details of their victimization in front of a group of total strangers. Waiting to testify only intensifies the fears, which is where Amos steps up. “Once Amos is introduced, you see an immediate drop in the anxiety. They do tricks with Amos, petting, taking him for a walk and many times draw pictures of him.  Again, this alleviates much of the anxiety associated with waiting to testify. They are also assured Amos will be waiting when they are done.”Advocates for courtroom support dogs relate the dog to a teddy bear, providing a source of comfort.

My take on this is simple: The defense wants equality, let the courtroom therapy dog sit by their client’s side when on the stand. The dog serves as source of assistance. At the present time, as has been through the ages, dogs are classified as property in the eyes of the law. Let the “property” serve a place in the courtroom. Allow the “property” to fill a void, shield the horror, and lift the veil on the truth. Oh, and if the property sees fit to lift something else on the alleged perpetrator, so be it.

What if that dog was a pit bull? Would the defense be so up in arms about it? (I’ m a fan of all breeds, by the way) Isn’t this an injustice to dub the dog cute and swaying what jurors might think? A new form of racial profiling, perhaps species specific? How many defense attorneys counsel their clients to put their hair in a ponytail, avoid looking slovenly, be sure to shave, etc. All of these “tricks” and ploys on the empathetic heartstrings of the jurors must come to a halt if justice is to be served.

Banning courtroom therapy dogs from helping kids in need? Give me a break.

What do you think?


  1. Kim Campbell says

    I think that court-room and counselling dogs are a great idea! Too many children can’t or aren’t allowed to testify due to the trauma involved in doing so. When do we think of the victims, and not the accused? The accused can decide to not testify, the victim can’t, and have a case hold together…. we need to advocate more for victims. If the dog, has to be in a covered witness stand where they aren’t as in your face as if in an open witness box, fine. But victims need protection, and they need support to testify against people, sometimes relatives that have abused them in horrible ways.

  2. Heidi Meinzer says

    I practice animal law, and I happen to be a former public defender, so I see both sides of this argument. You post has a nice, balanced view and asks a great question. Some people seem almost offended when defense attorneys raise objections or make arguments to preserve the constitutional rights of their clients. Defense attorneys have an absolute duty to be a zealous advocate for their clients, and this should not be held against them. In fact, anyone who is tough on crime should welcome zealous attorneys, because any resulting conviction is only bullet proofed on appeal if there was a highly competent attorney fighting all the way.

    As an animal lover and an animal law attorney, I am fascinated at the many ways animals — and dogs in particular — can help us. The use of courthouse dogs is just one wonderful example. I prefer the use of a courthouse dog over other procedures such as allowing the witness to testify via closed circuit television, which is subject to attack as a violation of the defendant’s Confrontation Clause rights. With a well crafted curative instruction from the judge that the jury should not draw any inferences from the presence of the dog, any bias issues can be diffused and the use of a courthouse dog should withstand appellate attack. It will be very interesting — and hopefully very validating — to see an appellate court rule on this issue.

    Kim, you do have a great point that often victims get left behind, and when served by a subpoena, have no choice but to testify or suffer the consequences of contempt of court. I see this firsthand — particularly now that I’m in private practice and often hired to represent a victim or witness. Some prosecutor’s offices and courts have wonderful victim advocate programs. Those that do not often leave the feeling that witnesses and victims are at best secondary players in the criminal justice system. A conscientious prosecutor does a world of good for everyone involved in a criminal case, and I’d love to see more prosecutors who know about dogs like Rosie and are brave enought to fight for a courtroom dog for their witnesses.

  3. Michele C. Hollow says

    Hi Carol, I’m impressed. I just heard about this and wanted to find out more. Thanks for this important piece. And congrats on Fidose of Reality! I know this is going to be big. I just shared on FB.

  4. Carol Bryant says

    As an animal law attorney, your thoughts on this topic are very much appreciated. As you say, the closed circuit tv method of testifying has had its own share of objections. It’s an interesting situation and one that won’t soon go away. I also view the dog as an assistive device, like a cane, a wheelchair, heck even Xanax. If we start banning emotional aids from the courtroom, then defendants should not be allowed to enter the courtroom if SSRIs are in their system. Why should they be calm and have some sort of support if others cannot? It certainly is a slippery slope and waking people up to the amazing powers of d-o-g. TY for weighing in, Heidi.

    Hi Michele, to one of my favorite writers, thanks so much!

  5. Darlene says

    What an interesting subject for discussion! Thank you for presenting this in such a way to see all sides of this topic. Great article and Heidi, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your arguments from both sides of the courtroom.

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