May 24 2012

Cuddly K-9s?

There is a new trend in law enforcement: cuddling. Not with the authorities, but with therapy dogs who assist victims of crime who are having a hard time dealing with their experience. These dogs are trained to help calm people who are stressed so that they can help investigators or prosecutors find and hold accountable the criminals who have frightened the injured party.

Assistance dogs are generally used to actively engage people by helping with tasks and day-to-day responsibilities. These companions, however, need to do the opposite. Providing distraction to a scared individual while remaining unobtrusive during an investigation can only be done by pups who have been specially trained from a very young age. . Dogs used during trials are called courthouse dogs, as opposed to therapy dogs, so that the jury doesn’t get the impression that there is something “wrong” with the person who is testifying, and that they need therapy. Here is a great website called Courthouse Dogs that explains them in more detail.

When young children need to be interviewed by officials, they or their guardians may be nervous and stressed. Having a dog in the interview room can make them less anxious about the questions they are asked by allowing them physical contact with the dog. Before the child is expected to answer, they get acquainted with the dog by watching him do tricks and learning to give him commands. This puts someone who is apprehensive at ease and allows them to open up about a subject that may be scary or painful to recall.

Sixteen states currently use dogs to aid victims in various ways. People who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, children, and people with developmental delays who need to be questioned or give testimony have all been helped. Their responsibilities run the gamut from giving therapy to traumatized witnesses to sitting on the witness stand in court. But not everyone thinks this is a good thing.

Defense attorneys have appealed several cases where a dog assisted a witness in court. They argue that juries will be sympathetic toward someone who needs comfort from a cute, cuddly puppy dog during testimony. Courthouse dogs are trained to sense stress in people and respond with a gentle nudge, but some claim that the stress could be from lying rather than from reliving a traumatic experience. Most of these cases that have been appealed are still pending, but it will be interesting to see how the cases end up.

Dogs have always been a comfort to people, and it’s good to know that they can help the most vulnerable. What do you think of using dogs as investigative assistants?

Courthouse Dog in action - image via Courthouse Dogs.

Courthouse Dog in action - image via Courthouse Dogs.

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