Fact: Petting an animal helps to reduce stress. We don’t really need science to tell us this, but there are studies documenting very real physiological and psychological benefits to being around animals. Another fact: Appearing in court can be a very stressful experience, especially for children who are witnesses to or victims of crime. So some localities have put two and two together to come up with a way of easing the trauma for these victims and witnesses: bringing dogs to court! The idea originated with Ellen O’Neill-Stephens—at the time, senior deputy prosecutor for King County, Washington—after witnessing the effect her own son’s therapy dog, Jeeter, had on children involved in two different abuse cases. Interacting with Jeeter enabled the children to talk about what had happened to them. That set a process in motion. In 2005, after persuading chief prosecutor Norm Meleng to agree and then finding the right dog for the “job,” O’Neill-Stephens introduced a Labrador named Ellie to the King County Courthouse as the nation’s first full-time courthouse dog.
In general, these specially trained animals may be present not just during a trial but also during pretrial interviews, and some jurisdictions now want to allow dogs to accompany victims of domestic violence to the stand. Their presence even helps relieve stress for courthouse staff and jurors!
Enthusiasm has not been universal however. Defense lawyers have objected to allowing dogs in court, claiming it would bias the jury. Prosecutors argue that it is similar to other accommodations courts have made, such as allowing a child to bring a doll or stuffed animal, and judges generally agree. A New York appeals court recently upheld this view, ruling that the presence of a dog is not inherently prejudicial to the defendant.
There are now 48 dogs working in 21 states. If Norm Meleng (who passed away in 2007) could have had his way, they would be everywhere. Shortly after he acquiesced to the use of courthouse dogs in King County, he was sold—telling The Seattle Times “‘I think no Prosecutor’s Office is complete without one.’”