DOYLESTOWN, Pa. — After months of telling her story over and over to police officers and lawyers, it was finally time for the 12-year-old Bucks County girl to walk into the courtroom and testify against her rapist.

She was petrified.

While she waited to be called into court, the girl curled up on a chair and hugged her knees. Then Bud, a greyhound from Roxy Therapy Dogs, was brought to her side.

“She started petting Bud and you could just see the tension draining out of her face,” said Sharon Fleck, executive director of the nonprofit that brings dogs to the Bucks County Justice Center and other locations. “I don’t think she took her hands off him the entire time we were there.”

Dogs are showing up in courthouses across the country, as prosecutors and victim advocates seek to harness their calming effect on witnesses and victims of all ages.

While some defendants have argued that trotting a canine through the courtroom plays on jurors’ sympathies and gives the prosecution an unfair advantage, appellate courts have ruled in favor of allowing emotionally fragile witnesses to bring a dog to the stand with them.

“Dogs are miracle workers,” said Bucks County Deputy District Attorney Kate Kohler, who prosecutes sex offenders in the office’s special victims unit. “For a child who is scared about court, a dog is a kind of security blanket. It gives them courage to get up there.”

Lehigh County has two dogs roaming the courthouse in Allentown — Ramona, a 2-year-old black Labrador who joined the Lehigh County district attorney’s office last month as a comfort dog, and a yet-to-be-introduced explosives detection dog that belongs to the sheriff’s office.

District Attorney Jim Martin believes Ramona, who will occupy a corner of victim-witness coordinator Kimberly Silvestri’s office, will be particularly helpful to child-abuse victims.

“Children are often anxious and scared or withdrawn,” Martin said. “Helping to reduce a child’s anxiety, which we believe Ramona will do, will assist that child to relax and perhaps have better focus when called upon to testify.”

Two other Pennsylvania district attorneys’ offices — in Montgomery and Centre counties — employ comfort dogs, said Darlene Sullivan, executive director of Canine Partners for Life, the nonprofit that raised and trained Ramona.

Unlike a service dog that is trained in specific tasks to help a disabled person, comfort dogs or therapy dogs are trained to provide more passive emotional support to help someone cope with a situation. Nationwide, 141 dogs work in courthouses in 35 states, according to the Courthouse Dogs Foundation in Bellevue, Wash. Not all are on “staff,” like Ramona. Some visit the courthouse for special programs.

Precautions are taken to protect young victims’ privacy as they interact with the dogs. And dog handlers typically are given just enough information about the children and their cases to prepare them for what they might hear.

Easing children’s anxiety is important, Kohler said, because a complicated court case can move slowly, forcing a child to wait for hours or even days to take the stand.

In the case of the 12-year-old Bucks girl, her rapist pleaded guilty after several hours of tense pretrial negotiations, and the child didn’t have to testify.

Not only do dogs help children relax in a courthouse, they also ease the anxiety of victims and their relatives, lawyers and even police officers.

“As soon as the dog gets there, everyone starts smiling and petting the dog,” said Kendel Beck, with Network Of Victim Assistance, a Bucks organization that’s a partner in the comfort dog program. “I know they always make me feel better.”

Some studies back up advocates’ claims. A 2014 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that petting and looking into the eyes of a dog caused human test subjects to release the chemical oxytocin, which can slow heart rate and breathing, quiet blood pressure and inhibit the production of stress hormones.

Not any old mutt can be a courthouse dog. Canines must complete at least two years of training and be able to pass skill and obedience tests, including responding to hand signals and walking in a controlled manner. They cannot roam courthouses without their handlers, who also go through special training. And they must maintain “a calm manner and good social behavior” inside and outside the courthouse, under rules set by Assistance Dogs International, a coalition of organizations that provide guide dogs, hearing dogs and service dogs.

Dogs from the Roxy program work with children in Bucks County’s dependency court, where a judge decides whether children in foster care may be returned to their parents. Dogs often accompany children in that courtroom but, so far, none has been allowed into a criminal trial.

Bucks County Court Administrator Stephen Heckman said there’s no policy prohibiting dogs from accompanying crime witnesses, but the practice is generally frowned upon, unless the dog is a bona fide service animal.

“It’s likely to be a distraction,” Heckman said. “We don’t want a dog diverting a jury’s attention from the evidence.”

Heckman noted that it’s up to each judge to decide if the case they’re presiding over is an appropriate place for a dog. That’s also the policy in Lehigh County, President Judge Edward Reibman said.

Even people who dislike dogs, such as Allentown defense attorney Thomas Joachim, acknowledge their usefulness in court. Joachim, who was severely bitten by a dog when he was 10, said he wouldn’t argue against a dog sitting next to a witness as long as any nervous defendant he was representing was afforded the same option.

“If a trial is a search for the truth, then anything that will aid a witness in testifying has value,” Joachim said. “If it puts them at ease, I’m OK with it, as long as it goes both ways.”

Still, Joachim said, he would be on alert for a prosecutor trying to use a dog to gain a jury’s sympathy.

“I wouldn’t want them using it as a prop,” he said. “It has to be for a genuine purpose.”

That could be a fine line, noted Easton defense attorney Gary Asteak, who said that if he were representing a client facing serious criminal charges, he’d object vigorously to a dog appearing before the jury.

“Imagine the witness cradling a cute little poodle,” Asteak said. “That’s creating a sense of sympathy that’s artificial.”

As for using dogs to help victims outside the courtroom feel more comfortable, Asteak has no issue. He said he’s well aware of the therapeutic value of not only dogs but ducks and chickens as well.

In 2013, Victor Tohom, a New York man convicted of raping a 15-year-old girl, claimed a dog biased his case. The teen’s therapists recommended bringing a golden retriever named Rose to court, noting the girl was more verbal when Rose was nearby. With Rose by her side, the teen testified against Tohom, who was convicted.

Tohom appealed his 25-years-to-life sentence, claiming the dog’s presence swayed the jury. Prosecutors acknowledged there was no law allowing the dog to accompany the girl, though there was precedent for children testifying with a comfort item such as a teddy bear.

In a unanimous ruling, appellate judges sided with the prosecution, saying Tohom failed to show the dog’s presence was not permitted under state law or that it impaired his right to a fair trial.

Florida settled the question with a law that went into effect last month. It allows therapy dogs in all court proceedings that involve child abuse, abandonment or neglect.

If Florida’s law catches on, it may be only a matter of time before courthouses across the country go to the dogs.


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Information from: The Morning Call, http://www.mcall.com