Courthouse Facility Dogs and Child Witnesses
Last year, Ellie — a cockapoo puppy — became our family dog as a birthday gift to our young son. She became his best companion and filled our home with joy and laughter. Ellie started to accompany me to the office, and in no time the office atmosphere became warmer and more affectionate. Ellie became the star attraction for my child clients, whom I represented in the family courts. Having a puppy around during interviews was the most effective ice breaker, as the children relaxed quickly around a furry friend. It made me curious about the new trend and effects of having trained dogs around children who are engaged in the justice system.
We have come a long way in understanding the profound effects of violence against children. Children who witness violence or are victims of abuse are at risk for long-term physical and mental health challenges. The Canadian legislature took seriously the various harmful effects of involving children in the legal process and passed the Testimonial Support Provisions for Children and Vulnerable Adults Act (Bill C-2) requiring that a child “shall” be permitted to testify via closed circuit television or from behind a screen. The Parliamentary debates leading to the enactment of Bill C-2 suggest that the accommodation of closed-circuit television is intended “to make it easier for child and youth witnesses to testify.” In the 1980’s in Ontario, this technology brought a wave of change by creating distance between the witness and the child victim via close-circuit television (CCTV) and privacy screens. Since 2014, children, youth, and vulnerable adult witnesses in criminal courtrooms now have the additional support of the courthouse facility dogs. From the use of technology to the companionship of animals, we have witnessed a profound shift in the judicial system, driven by various innovative child-focused justice system partners.
Since 2014 there has been a steady increase in the use of support animals by young and vulnerable witnesses in courtrooms across the country. Presently there is no specific provision in the Criminal Code for seeking testimonial aid, but the applications for a court facility dog to support a witness are made under s. 486 and s. 13 of the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights. Progress has been similar in the United States. In 2015, Arkansas became the first state to pass legislation allowing child witnesses to be accompanied by a certified facility dog while testifying, and half a dozen other states followed suit soon after.
In 2014, Hawk from the Calgary Police Victim Services Unit became the first dog to officially support a young witness while testifying. One year later, in a decision of the B.C. Provincial Court, R. v. J. L. K., (2015) B.C.J. No. 1055, Judge Oulton allowed an application to have Caber, an accredited assistance dog, to become the Province’s first in-court therapy dog. Judge Oulton noted in his decision that, “it is unusual that a dog come and be a support person to this young complainant,” but allowed the application as “the spirit and intent of the testimonial accommodation legislation was meant to ensure that witnesses who could be perceived as more vulnerable, were provided with support so that they could give full and candid accounts of what they were being asked to testify about in court.” As a result, Caber the therapy dog supported a nine-year-old complainant by sitting at her feet while she testified.
In Ontario, Brampton court invoked s. 13 of the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights, which states that “every victim has the right to request testimonial aids when appearing as a witness in proceedings relating to the offence” in the case of R. V. C.W  O.J. No. 5647. The court allowed Gordon, a Golden Retriever and support dog from the organization “Therapeutic Paws of Canada,” to sit as a “testimonial aid” beside a young victim of human trafficking as she gave a highly emotional statement to the court.
Rachel Braden, Child Witness Project Coordinator at the London Family Court Clinic (“LFCC”), discussed the use of support animals in an interview for this article. She noted that there are currently 45 courthouse facility dogs working across Canada, and 11 of these dogs work in Ontario courts, including at London Courthouse Facility Dogs Project. Braden explains that a courthouse facility dog is a professionally trained assistance dog, suitable for providing quiet companionship to vulnerable individuals in legal settings without causing any disruption of the proceedings. Braden noted the distinct terminology of “facility dog” used by the London Courthouse Facility Dogs project, rather than other widely used interchangeable terms such as service dog or court support dog, etc., as these and other terms could suggest that the witness is suffering from a condition caused by the accused.
The London Courthouse Facility Dog Project uses professionally trained and accredited dogs to ensure that the dogs are not obstructive in the courtroom and are able to remain still and calm for long hours. The dogs should not react when a witness becomes emotionally distressed. Child witnesses meet the courthouse facility dog at least once before the court date, and the facility dogs typically sit at the feet of the witness during testimony. Their handlers are professionals in the justice system, who receive special training for this role and are skilled in working with vulnerable victims. They are also familiar with the legal system and courtroom behavioural norms. This differs from other examples of support animals in which dogs are required to be on leash while at work, and require the presence of their “civilian” handler who may be excluded from the courtroom.
Merel was the first facility dog to be placed in a courthouse setting in Ontario, and she was trained for London Family Court Clinic by National Service Dog (NSD), a not-for-profit organization in Cambridge, Ontario. Merel is a black Labrador/Bernese cross and she likes to sit on the feet of the child witnesses, laying her head on their lap. Since 2016, Merel has been supporting children who have testified about sexual abuse, human trafficking, or other crimes. Merel’s calm presence and helping paw have a positive impact on child witnesses, as clearly expressed by one 12 year old victim: “Without Merel, I would have never been able to talk about what happened to me”.
Via LFCC, Merel and Rachel have supported over 200 child witnesses and victims who have made statements, testified, or delivered victim-impact statements. Merel’s services are made available to all of those under 18 in the London region who have witnessed or been victims of a crime. Merel now has a friend to work alongside as Yzer has recently joined the team.
The calming effects of trained dogs on human health and well-being—both physically and psychologically—are largely supported by scientific studies. For example, see: Wells, D. L. (2009), “The effects of animals on human health and well-being”. Journal of Social Issues, 65, 523-543.). As such, the number of courthouse facility dogs across Canada is quickly growing. Many organizations are waiting for dogs to complete their training and become part of the support team. Courthouse facility dogs have helped numerous children deal with the fear of testifying in court and have enhanced their ability to tell their story to the court. These dogs are indeed an innovative way of allowing children to use their voices.
Archana Medhekar, Certified Family Law Specialist and Family Mediator practicing in Toronto, Ontario. Archana was a member of PPC and is a current AFCC-O Board Member and Newsletter Committee member.