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. Facility dogs are working dogs that are specially chosen because of their calm demeanor and ability to work in a high-stress environment thereby decreasing the risk of creating legal issues. When their workday is over they go home with their primary handler and are “off duty.”
What Is a Facility Dog Team?
- The dog is a graduate of an accredited assistance dog organization. (Accreditation of these nonprofit organizations is under the auspices of Assistance Dogs International, which has set the standards in this industry since 1987.)
- Originating in carefully bred litters, they have been socialized to a wide variety of conditions – public spaces, crowded restaurants, children of all ages, elevators and open stairways, cats, office workspaces, public transportation. This wide socialization from an early age produces a dog that is not stressed by public life as an adult.
- Each courthouse facility dog is handled by a professional working in the legal field, who have been individually trained by the accredited assistance dog organization. The primary handler receives intensive training on how to handle the dog in public and care for the dog for its lifetime at work and home. Handlers include victim advocates, forensic interviewers, detectives, prosecuting attorneys, Guardians Ad Litem, therapists, and other professionals.
- To graduate and be certified as a facility dog team, the dog and handler must pass the ADI Public Access Test (the same test for public safety used for certified service dogs).
- The handler and dog are re-certified at regular intervals by the assistance dog organization to ensure that the team has maintained the organization’s training standards and that they continue to safely and reliably work in public areas.
Other Types of Dogs
Words matter. As case law develops and statutes are enacted regarding the use of dogs assisting vulnerable people involved in the legal system, the terms for these dogs have been used interchangeably even though the dogs have different levels of training, work requirements, or fall under a federally defined term. The labels for these dogs need to be used correctly to ensure that the precedents being established are meaningful throughout the United States.
A service dog is not a pet and assists a person with a disability. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA. See federal ADA definition of service animals.
Therapy dogs are personal pets that have undergone training with their owner, and then have been evaluated and registered by a local or national therapy dog organization. These dogs are traditionally used to visit patients in hospitals and residents in senior housing. Therapy dogs are not the best choice for use in legal proceedings due to limitations inherent in their registration/certification requirements.
- Must be removed if they exhibit stress – According to a 2009 publication from the American Humane Association, the use of pet therapy dogs in the criminal justice system requires that the animals be treated as participants in a mutually beneficial relationship and that the needs of the animals must always be considered, accommodated and balanced with the needs of the clients. This requirement means that if a therapy dog began to show signs of stress while in the witness box with a child, the dog’s owner would have to immediately remove the dog. This could be very disruptive to the court proceeding and leave a child feeling abandoned.
- Necessary presence of volunteer “civilian” handler – Pet therapy dogs must be on leash with their owner/handler whenever they are working. This should preclude their use in many situations where the presence on a nonprofessional volunteer would be problematic during the investigation and prosecution of a crime.
- Time limitations – Pet therapy dogs are generally limited to working no more than 2 hours a day to avoid overstressing the dogs. As a child progresses through the legal system, it is most helpful if the same dog can accompany him at every step along the way. As children grow to know one specific dog, a bond forms between them so that the dog is of even more comfort to them during these stages. Due to the nature of volunteer work, as well as the two- hour limitation per day on a pet therapy dog’s work, a therapy dog team is unlikely to be available for all stages of proceedings or be able to participate in long court proceedings that last for several hours.