According to the Attorney Newsletter from the Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, more and more courts have been allowing in recent years the use of therapy or comfort dogs to assist children and certain adults in the process of testifying in court and this year, two states (Arkansas and Illinois) have adopted statutes specifically allowing the use of dogs to aid young or vulnerable witnesses in stressful court testimony.
The Illinois statute allows specially trained facility dogs to accompany witnesses 18 or younger, or developmentally disabled adults, to the witness stand in certain instances for cases involving sexual abuse or exploitation. The specially trained dogs used in such circumstances are considered facility dogs, serving many people who become involved in a facility, rather than service dogs, who are dedicated to the assistance of a particular individual.
Most are graduates of accredited training programs and work with handlers who are professionals qualified in criminal justice fields, such as victim advocates, detectives, forensic interviewers, and assistant prosecutors. The use of dogs in courtrooms has not met with universal approval, as many defense attorneys and advocates for defendants have expressed concern that the presence of dogs on the witness stand may cultivate sympathy for the witnesses and distort the jury’s perception of the testimony, compromising the rights of defendants.
However, courts in Washington, California, and New York have upheld the practice when the court exercises discretion and takes steps to minimize the effect of the animal’s presence on decorum and practice in the courtroom.