Many people will never step foot in a courthouse; others might, but for minor violations like a speeding ticket or even a happy occurrence like getting married. Unfortunately, some are not so lucky and have to take the stand as the victim or witness of a crime. Knowing what a traumatic and stressful experience that can be, Ellen O'Neill-Stephens and Celeste Walsen founded Courthouse Dogs in Washington in 2008.
Their mission is to "promote justice with compassion through the use of professional trained facility dogs to provide emotional support to everyone in the justice system."
O'Neill-Stephens was originally inspired to begin this service by her son Sean, who has cerebral palsy, and his service dog Jeeter. Seeing the positive effect the dog had on her son, she knew that she wanted to bring the same support to people in the justice system.
Each dog that works with Courthouse Dogs goes through an extensive training program accredited by Assistance Dogs International.
After training, the pups are termed facility dogs. These special dogs must respond to commands the first time and display calm behavior in any environment. Courthouse Dogs, in particular, should be very quiet and non-disruptive, so they won't distract from court proceedings.
For each dog there is also a trained handler, who is primarily responsible for the facility dog's care.
Handlers with Courthouse Dogs are usually victim advocates, forensic interviewers or other professionals in the criminal justice field. Each handler also needs to make sure there are one or two other trained people on call.
Dogs have long been used as therapy animals because of the scientifically proven benefits they have on human physical and mental health.
Lower blood pressure, endorphin release, reduced anxiety and lifted spirits are all effects of simply having a dog as a companion.
Unfortunately, there can be some resistance to allowing these support pups in every courthouse. Objections such as allergies or fear of dogs have been raised.
Founders O'Neill-Stephens and Walsen have seen in person what kind of friendly welcome their dedicated facility dog, Molly B (on the left), has received once they got in the door.
The team at Courthouse Dogs is hoping that slowly, but surely every courthouse will be open to facility dogs.
With the proper education and training (of both dogs and people), a pack of dogs roaming the halls just might become a common courthouse scene!