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From the doghouse to the courthouse

August 4, 2021

The National Center for State Courts (NCSC) released its 2021 edition of Trends of the State Courts. One article, "From the Doghouse to the Courthouse: Facility Dogs as Trial Aids for Vulnerable Witnesses" examines the pros and cons of these types of support dogs, as well as legal considerations for courts that might be weighing the use of facility dogs.

The authors start by noting that facility dogs, or therapy dogs, are currently used in more than 40 states. It cites data that supports the position that facility dogs are beneficial to vulnerable witness well-being.

The types of dogs used include:

  • Service animals are individually trained to help a specific person with a disability,
  • Emotional support animals also support a specific owner. Unlike service dogs, emotional support dogs have no required training, no species limitations, and have limited legal rights.
  • Therapy or facility animals are mainly dogs that are trained to be comfortable in new environments and interact with strangers. They must complete a certification training program.

While there are advantages to the use of these animals, the authors revealed some concerns, chiefly the potential effect that it might cause on the jury. "[F]or example, the dog could lead the jury to think the victim must be injured if she needs a dog to testify, or that the dog is a ploy to trick the jury into thinking her injuries are severe." This issue came up in the criminal arena in 2021, as noted in NCSC's Jur-E Bulletin, where a judge held that a witness’s emotional support animal did not prejudice a criminal jury.

In addition, the article provides practical elements for courts and judges that might be thinking about implementing this type of aid in their courtrooms. Judges and courts should take into consideration possible allergic reactions to dogs, and should also determine what training handlers will need. NCSC also offers several additional resources for courts that use such animals. See this Trends: Close Up article from December 2016 that examined the application of the ADA regulations on Service and Support Animals in the courthouse.

Is your court using dogs to promote well-being among the witnesses? Follow NCSC on FacebookTwitterInstagram, or Pinterest and share your experiences.

For more information, contact Knowledge@ncsc.org or call 800-616-6164.