Unless you’re running for office, speaking in front of an audience is rarely a pleasure, especially when testifying against an accuser in a court of law.
Founded in 2004, Courthouse Dogs is a nonprofit organization that employs 87 dogs in 28 states. Using mostly labradors and golden retrievers — trained for two years before being put out into the field — Courthouse Dogs has developed a solution that takes the stress out of dealing with uncomfortable legal confrontations and to help inexperienced speakers deal with their nerves. The organization states their vision on their website:
“We envision a world where there is a dog in every courthouse providing emotional support to everyone in need during stressful legal proceedings.”
Ellen O’Neill Stephens, who handles the legal side of Courthouse Dogs, said in an interview with Upworthy:
“When a person is reliving a traumatic event, they experience physiological reactions similar to what they had when the event was taking place. This adversarial system [of testifying in front of your attacker] is brutal. A lot of people come out damaged by it.”
Testifying in front of an attacker is a nightmare, especially in a sexual abuse case, which research has shown amplifies greater trauma for the victim. Celeste Walsen, who handles the training aspect of Courthouse Dogs, told Upworthy:
“We count on dogs to tell us when there’s a bad guy around.”
Knowing that a dog is in a relaxed state makes people feel that they are in a safe place, explained Walsen.
The dogs serve as comfort witnesses; because the victims feel a sense of companionship with the dogs, stress levels are drastically reduced, making the entire ordeal much more bearable.
The 2015 International Courthouse Dogs Conference will take place early next month educating people about the program and demonstrating workshops with the dogs.