Stepping into a courthouse is no easy task for some of the littlest crime victims, but these therapy dogs are here to help them face their fears.
Court support therapy dogs, including Bella, a 6-year-old Doberman, Newman, an 11-year-old boxer and Jake, a 7-year-old yellow Labrador, are trained to comfort kids up to 16 years old as they prepare to testify.
“Walking into a courthouse is a really scary thing,” said Joanne Rittenhouse, of Companions for Courage. “Now you have a child, who isn’t with their family for one reason or another, walking into a courthouse by themselves, and they’re facing the person who hurt them. Some of these children won’t testify, but if they have a dog with them, it gives them strength.”
One of their handlers told HooplaHa that she witnessed firsthand how the therapy dogs were able to help a young girl go to trial against her abuser.
“I couldn’t even get her out of the car when we first started," the handler said. "And now toward the end, she was getting out just to go see Karl [the therapy dog she was assigned], never mind the deposition or the trial."
Rittenhouse explained the organization first allows children to choose which dog they prefer. “That puts power back on them again, and they have some control over their lives.”
The dogs in their program also tend to be of bigger breeds, since they believe a big dog will help kids feel more courageous.
When they arrive at the courthouse, therapy dogs often sit on the floor with young victims as they deliver testimony, or if the case goes to trial, therapy dogs are also invited to join them on the witness stand.
“We want to make sure our dogs are well behaved and patient," Rittenhouse said. "We don’t want to cause a mistrial. It’s a serious business going to a court house."
She explained each of their court support therapy dogs have two years of prior experience as therapy dogs, gaining experience in nursing homes, schools, hospitals and assisted living. Once they are registered, insured, and vetted, they’re invited to begin training for the courtroom.
In addition to helping kids up to 16 years old, Rittenhouse explained their dogs also work with adults with disabilities, and imprisoned youth during therapy sessions.
“The dog relaxes them and they can open up to a therapy session and pour their heart out a little more,” she explained. “Most of them try to play tough guy, and this way the dog softens them up.”