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A close up of a black Labrador's face

Meet the dogs helping to convict criminals in court

For even the bravest of adults, the idea of testifying in court can be a scary prospect. Having to recount a terrifying or distressing experience in the most minute of details in front of complete strangers, to have invasive questions asked of you by someone you’ve never met, to face down the person the across the room that has caused all of this hurt, often while surrounded by that person’s supporters. And all of this in an unfamiliar environment, filled with complex jargon.

For a child, however, the prospect of attending court must be even more terrifying. No matter how strong the power of their favourite teddy bear is, there are times when a cuddly toy just won’t cut it. Instead, authorities in America have turned to a different kind of comforter - real dogs - to help soothe and reassure children taking to the witness box. Known as "comfort dogs", these specially trained canines are being used in the most complex and traumatising of cases involving children, including sexual and physical abuse, both in initial interviews and in court.

A view of the judge's box in court with the American flag in the background Credit: Getty

The use of dogs in a therapeutic manner is nothing new. Across the world, schools, care homes and hospitals are using animals - even llamas in some places - in increasing frequency to help individuals to process their emotions and reduce anxiety. However, there is a difference between "therapy dogs" and "courthouse dogs", in that the latter have been intentionally bred and socialised with high-pressure situations in mind, and must pass a higher level of public access test.

On their website, the Courthouse Dogs Foundation, who connect legal professionals with access to dogs, draw attention to various cases where dogs have helped to secure convictions by comforting children; these include with a group of seven-year-old girls who had been sexually assaulted and “cried and absolutely refused to sit in the witness chair” at trial, and a five-year-old boy who, having witnessed numerous incidences of domestic abuse which culminated in his father savagely assaulting and threatening to kill his mother, was too scared to testify in court. While dogs are predominantly used in cases involving children, they have also been used with adults where mental health and disabilities are a concern.

A golden retriever rests his face on his paw Credit: Getty

In order to get the most out of courthouse dogs, children taking to the stand are encouraged to meet them multiple times before the trial to allow them bond with their canine companion. This not only includes engaging in playful interactions but also practising for the moments where the dog must remain still while the child holds a conversation. This process also allows the dogs, who are regarded as exceptionally emotionally intelligent, to better know the witness and sense when they may need more, or even less, support.

At present, there are over 130 such dogs, mostly Labradors and golden retrievers, working across 34 states. While many work on a case-by-case basis, Idaho is one of those where the right to a courtroom dog is enshrined, thanks to a ruling in July 2017: “It’s not an easy situation for a child to testify against someone that might be their parent or family member,” commented Republican state Sen. Shawn Keough, adding that “To allow a facility dog at the witness stand seemed like a humane thing to do.”

But that is not to say that the scheme does not have its detractors; some argue that having a friendly dog in court, sat next to a cute child, prejudices the jury into an assumption of innocence and truthfulness on the part of the witness: “Nobody knows how juries will be influenced by this,” said John Ensminger, a defence attorney, who has written on the impact of service dogs, “It may be that if you get enough ‘dog people’ on a jury, you’re going to increase your chances of conviction.”

A view of a United States court building

Despite Ensminger’s worries, there are guidelines governing the conduct of courtroom dogs, most relevant being the fact that dogs must be as unobtrusive as possible, staying laid down out of sight of the jury and moving only when necessary. Some defence lawyers also argue that the presence of dogs in a courtroom can also work in a defendant's favour, in that distressed children will naturally invoke a greater level of sympathy from the jury.

Courtroom dogs may already be common practice in the US, Canada and Chile, but in the UK they are welcome only so far as the court waiting room, and this service is provided by charities rather than regulated providers. With the British court system more likely to use recorded evidence, or live link into courts, for child witnesses, there is perhaps less requirement for their introduction, but that said, surely anything that we can do to make the court process kinder for victims of abuse and assault - child or adult - has got to be worth considering. For now though, man's best friend will continue to make new, little friends in courts across America by supporting, comforting, and really just looking so very cute.