Courthouse Dogs, Abused Children

by Mary Haight on August 21, 2009

While I’ve heard that a few dogs may have been given pink slips from police work, new jobs are opening up in another area of law and order for the creme de la creme.  An ad would read: Applicants with great obedience and discipline skills who relate well to children while remaining calm and submissive are being sought. 18-month training program required. Whiners, barkers, and A.D.D. types need not apply. Job title: Courthouse dog duty. 

Courthouse Dogs, the brainchild of Ellen O’Neill-Stephens of Seattle, gives dogs the job of new best friend to children traumatized by abuse. What a fine idea! As if what has already happened to these kids is not enough, they need to go through a scary and weird courtroom experience with their hearts in their throats. No wonder so many are nearly paralyzed with fear and can’t testify. Calming the nerves and apprehension of a young child while testifying about what was done to her or him is an incredibly  important job. 

This program started in 2003 (hmm, nobody told me either!) when Stephens applied what she knew about the effect of service dogs on sick children, like her son with cerebral palsy, to her job as a prosecutor.

“Sometimes, these children will say things to the dog that they’re too embarrassed to say to a person,” Stephens said. “We had a girl who had been severely abused and she could never talk about it. But she petted Jeeter for over 90 minutes straight and she was able to tell what happened.

Stephens said the courthouse dogs, usually golden or Labrador retrievers, or mixes of the two, go through an intensive training regimen. And even then, only about 30 percent of the dogs that start out actually make it, she said in an interview with Selwyn Crawford at Dallas Morning News. 

Sounds familiar: Lots and lots of possible candidates get whittled down to just a few young pups–don’t start smiling or wagging your tail until the prosecutor interviewer calls.  Oh, and I forgot to add, snappy and cranky? Don’t waste their time. Yup, pretty much the same!

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