Courthouse dogs are touching, stress reducers for everyone

Judi Johnson and Mya outside courthouse

Since 2003 Ellen O’Neill-Stephens has slowly and meticulously built Courthouse Dogs LLC into a premier professional organization that received acknowledgment nationally for its positive role in the country’s criminal-justice system.

Founded in Seattle by O’Neill-Stephens, a King County Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney, Courthouse Dogs LLC promotes the use of highly trained assistance dogs to provide emotional support to everyone in our criminal-justice system.

The program originated after O’Neill-Stephens brought her disabled (cerebral palsy) son Sean’s assistance dog Jeeter, a golden Labrador retriever, to work (juvenile drug court) weekly on days when Sean was with a caregiver and did not require the animal’s services. O’Neill-Stephens, who was working in juvenile drug court, quickly observed that Jeeter, trained by Canine Companions for Independence in Santa Rosa, Calif., not only assisted teenagers in drug treatment but also had a calming influence on young twin sisters who were scheduled to testify against their father in a sexual-abuse case.

Jeeter comforts a prisoner in King Co drug court. Courthouse dogs are available for use by defendants as well as alleged victums.

“I was uncertain but thought it was worth a try,” O’Neill-Stephens recalls. “On the stand, the children and defense attorney were petting Jeeter and he provided the calming effect we sought.”

King County Prosecuting Attorney Norm Maleng recognized the value of Jeeter’s contributions toward a prosecutor’s goal to seek justice and the following year he decided to bring in a second dog, Ellie, a Labrador retriever mix trained as a facility dog specifically for courthouse needs by CCI.

“It’s taken a lot of educating and tens of thousands of miles on the road,” says O’Neill-Stephens, who along with Courthouse Dogs LLC executive director Dr. Celeste Walsen, DVM, may be facing their biggest challenge of all today from well-intentioned advocates of pet therapy dogs being utilized in the program.

“There are just too many special demands on courthouse dogs that pet therapy animals have not been trained for,” emphasizes O’Neill-Stephens, who estimates there are about 15 courthouse dogs nationwide (Washington, California, Florida, Indiana, Arizona, Missouri, Maryland, Pennsylvania), all of which are Labrador retrievers or Lab crosses and a Golden Doodle from accredited Assistance Dogs International training programs.

Inmates at the Indiana Women's Correctional Institute in Indianapolis train service dogs as part of the Indiana Canine Assistant Network.

Washington state has the most, with two in King County, two in Snohomish County, one is Skagit County and one in Kitsap County.

A courthouse facility dog is considered a staff member in the building where it serves. While a cherished family pet of the handler, who is a criminal-justice professional, it is a working dog during the day whose behavior must be totally predictable. This means it must be quiet and be expected to hold sit and down positions for long durations.

Walsen adds, “It must not vocalize, except when ordered, and should there be a yelling or screaming outburst in court, it must remain totally quiet and motionless. Any misbehavior by the animal could result in a mistrial.”

If you put the wrong dog and handler in the wrong environment you run the risk of unraveling a program that has taken years to build. It’s not cost-effective, plus there are liability and mistrial risks should the animal react inappropriately to a court incident.

In fact, the pair recommends that each dog carry a minimum of $1 million in liability insurance. Many qualified dogs carry such policies as a part of the certification process, such as those provided by CCI.

O’Neill-Stephens and Walsen have fashioned a strong case on the Courthouse Dogs LLC web site ( for not using therapy dogs in the courtroom, including the following:
• Therapy-dog organizations that evaluate pet dogs and their owners do no test them for safety around young children before registering them.
• Pet dogs and their volunteer handlers have varying degrees of training. Because the behavior of children who are asked to testify at a trial is unpredictable and sometimes inappropriate, a dog unaccustomed to this response could bite or bark, triggering an even more stressful situation.
• Volunteer therapy-dog handlers are usually required to be connected to their dog by a leash at all times. That would require the handler accompany the dog during forensic and defense interviews and in the courtroom, where the handler may inadvertently interfere with these proceedings by giving non-verbal communications or have to remove the dog should it become anxious or uncontrollable.

Judi Johnson, a deputy prosecuting attorney in Boone Co, Ind., pauses with her courthouse dog, Mya.

• Therapy dogs are registered because they like to engage with people. Hence, they could interfere with prosecution of a crime because they might distract the witness during these proceedings.
• Therapy-dog organizations recommend their teams work for only two hours a day, but a courthouse dog may be needed for an entire day inside and outside the facility.
• Avoid using the term “therapy dog” because the term may create grounds for a mistrial or raise an issue on appeal. The term connotes that the recipient of the dog’s attention is in need of physical or psychiatric attention, prompting the possibility a defense attorney might argue that the use of the animal implies to the jury that the witness is a victim in need of therapy and “could be construed as a comment on the evidence”

Conversely, because of their calm, soothing presence, courthouse dogs can provide rehabilitative services for defendants, too. O’Neill-Stephens contends, “When a defense attorney objects to the use of a dog in court because its presence might sway a jury’s decision, I can argue that he or she can utilize the animal, too. The dogs are there for everyone, and when a defendant is struggling, the animal can help reduce his or her emotional pain as well. “

The use of courthouse dogs isn’t limited to the courtroom per se. When a child has been sexually abused or is a witness to a violent crime, he/she undergoes a forensic interview in a specially designed room with a specially trained interviewer. Because that youngster has undergone intense trauma he/she doesn’t relish talking to a complete stranger, a specially trained dog can provide a soothing influence when positioned quietly alongside. Outside the room the prosecutor and law-enforcement officers can view the proceedings.

The process is strictly choreographed and videotaped. The purpose of the interview is to determine that the child knows the difference between right and wrong and can describe something in the past with accuracy. The defense attorney receives a copy of the taped interview to share with the defendant to determine how to proceed.  “Often, a decision is made to enter a guilty plea and reduce the trauma on everyone as a result of the taped proceeding,” says O’Neill-Stephens, “which proves less costly to adjudicate the case.”

Ironically, when O’Neill-Stephens first began using Jeeter in 2003, the Washington State Bar Association referred to him as a therapy dog, when the courthouse dog job description and title had not yet been established.

Since then, these dogs have literally become the proverbial paw prints and public face of their offices, interacting with people in courthouse public areas, child-advocacy centers, drug courts and offices, as well as attracting considerable media attention when introduced in new areas.

Molly, a courthouse dog trained by Canine Companions for Independence, is used for Courthouse Dogs LLC training demonstrations nationwide and works part-time in the King Co Prosecutor's Office.

O’Neill-Stephens and Walsen serve as consultants for court jurisdictions nationwide considering applying for a courthouse dog. “We don’t handle or place any dogs,” explains Walsen, “but simply act as liaisons to help prepare them for the application process and the eventual training.”

The potential primary handler must draft a plan, says Walsen that describes the dog’s duties and care. It should be submitted to the prosecutor or agency director for approval and shared with the entire office staff, some of who may be allergic to dogs or have a fear of them.

Obtaining a trained courthouse dog from CCI is no easy chore. A prosecutor, law-enforcement officer or forensic interviewer must apply for an application, fill out the form and wait a couple of weeks before it is approved. Next, the individual undergoes a 90-minute phone interview with CCI personnel. If that hurdle is cleared, an in-person interview is scheduled in Santa Rosa, Calif.  Successful applicants then face a nine months to 1½-year waiting period for a trained animal.

CCI provides the dogs free of charge to qualified individuals, and other nonprofits offer them at low or no cost. The handler, however, must pay his or her own transportation costs for a two-week training class in Santa Rosa. Courthouse dogs’ careers often continue until age 10 or 11; most come to the handler at age 2.

While CCI retains ownership of the dog to ensure its well-being, the animal belongs to the primary handler. Should the handler leave his/her office for a position elsewhere the dog would follow.

Here’s a snapshot of Snohomish County CCI facility dog Stilson assisting a 12-year-old victim on the witness stand, from trial notes by Valerie Shapiro, Snohomish County prosecuting attorney:

The victim has previously been molested by one brother; her other brother, a 15-year-old Level 2 sex offender, drilled a hole through her bedroom wall to watch her undress.

Shapiro asked the court for permission to allow Stilson to sit alongside the victim as she testified, but the defense objected, contending that a dog in the courtroom detracted from the serious nature of the proceedings and would give the victim the impression that this was not a serious matter. The defense attorney also argued Stilson’s presence would distract the victim during testimony.

Shapiro countered that the dog’s attendance would make the proceedings no less serious than a Seeing-Eye dog for a blind witness and that Stilson’s role in the defense interview posed no distraction for the victim.

The defense then argued the victim didn’t need Stilson since she had done so well during the defense interview answering questions openly with no difficulty, prompting Shapiro to respond that Stilson’s presence in that interview may have largely contributed to the victim’s comfort.

To demonstrate the dog’s demeanor, Shapiro brought him into the courtroom 10 minutes before the case was called. When the dog accompanied her up to the counsel table, she emphasized the court “had no idea he was even there.” Eventually, she performed a brief demonstration for the court of the animal’s ability to follow commands.

After earlier requiring the state to compile a “lengthy record” of Stilson’s training and experience in court, the judge ruled the dog could accompany the 12-year-old victim to the stand and lie at her feet during testimony. As trained, Stilson was unobtrusive throughout the proceeding, prompting the judge’s praise.

“We’re in an exacting, stressful environment,” concludes O’Neill-Stephens, “with no room for error in the courtroom. These dogs are a steadying influence for victims and witnesses, and can serve as stress reducer for everyone in the room.  That’s a pretty good bargain, isn’t it?”


Courthouse dogs concept had its origin 

in New York with retired Seeing Eye dog


Firsts in using trained dogs to assist victims and witnesses in the criminal-justice system:

1989: A retired Seeing-Eye dog Sheba assisted child sexual-abuse victims in the Special Victims Bureau of the Queens (N.Y.) District Attorney’s Office.

1990: Vachess, a German shepherd, made a courtroom appearance at the feet of a 5-year-old girl in a preliminary hearing in Rankin County (Miss.).

2003: Jeeter, a golden Labrador retriever, accompanied twin sisters into King County Superior Court during competency hearings and trial testimony.

2004: Canine Companions for Independence became the first assistance-dog organization to place a facility dog (Ellie, a Labrador retriever mix) to work in a prosecutor’s office, in Seattle.