Courthouse Therapy Dogs
The Pet Therapy in Courts Program was launched in 2007, after Susan Wilson, director of research and data for the Second Circuit, read a newspaper story about a victim advocate with a service dog in Polk County who noticed children bonded with her dog. Soon after, Susan partnered with the Office of the State Attorney, the Leon County Board of County Commissioners, and a local volunteer animal visitation program called Tallahassee Memorial Healthcare (TMH) Animal Therapy Program to create the Pet Therapy in the Courts Program. According to Susan Wilson, and the program's coordinator, "[t]he goal of the program is to have the dogs provide comfort to reduce the victim's anxiety, resulting in more accurate testimony"
Because of the program's success, state attorney victim advocates now mail brochures about it to victims of violent crimes following the defendant's first court appearance. Helene Pollock, director of the Victim/Witness Assistance Program for State Attorney Willie Meggs, states, "We're confident that many crime victims and their families will benefit from this program." And benefit they have; On December 7, 2009, at the request of Wakulla County Court Judge Jill Walker, TMH Animal Therapy Program teams Mary Pat Morris and Ruggles, Bobbie Jo Finer and Honey Girl, Julie Bogenreif and Coxton, as well as Mike Bogenreif and Heike made the first visits in the Dependency Courts in Wakulla County. Not only is this a first for Com- ForT, it is a first for the State of Florida. The first visit was deemed so successful that Judge Walker made it permanent after the first visit!
Dependency court can be extremely stressful for everyone involved. Dependency proceedings include all matters relating to children who may have been abandoned, abused or neglected by parents or custodian; terminations of parental rights and custody; children in need of services and children surrendered for adoption. In order to get as much information as possible, Judge Walker began requiring that children be present for dependency proceedings. "It's my hope that every time a child comes to court they see it as a positive," Judge Walker said. "I want them to be excited about coming to court." Besides the TMH Animal Therapy Program teams, the waiting room is open for kids to use, stocked with donated toys and books, and, after court the children are allowed to take a book or toy home with them.
Judge Walker says that the dogs and toys and books have appeared to put the children at ease. Judge Walker noted that the presence of the therapy dogs has also had a positive impact on the parents, saying, "Some of the parents have looked less stressed coming into the courtroom as well."
As we become more aware of the positive outcomes that can result from the incorporation of the human-animal bonding experience in the therapeutic setting, we are also becoming more appreciative of the benefits that individuals can derive through the appropriate use of canine companions in the judicial system. It's time our friends with paws had their day in court!