Program Development

The initial steps in Courthouse Dog Program development can take anywhere from a few months to a year or more. Taking time and care to develop a sound program from the very beginning will save you time and effort in the long run.


Your initial research into whether a Courthouse Dog Program is a good fit for your agency should be wide-ranging, as it will serve as the basis for program development. Here are some questions that you might begin with:

What is a Courthouse Dog Program?
What agencies in your state or province have successful programs?
What is the difference between a facility dog and a therapy dog?
What is the difference between a facility dog and a service dog?
Does your state or province have specific laws governing the use of facility dogs in the legal system?
What accredited assistance dog organizations place dogs in your state or province?

Many people have found it useful at this step to create a binder (or binders) as they go along, in order to share information with stakeholders, as well as keeping themselves organized. Some documents you might want to include:

Write a Job Description

Does a Courthouse Dog Program help to further the mission of your agency? Create a “job description” for your dog. How would a courthouse facility dog improve services for your clients?

Sample job description for a courthouse facility dog at a child advocacy center:

From Scotty’s House in Brazos County, TX:

The purpose of the Facility Dog is to promote the mission of Scotty’s House Child Advocacy Center.

“It is our mission to provide safety, healing, and justice for children victimized by abuse through professional assessment, counseling, and education in a compassionate and collaborative approach.”

The Facility Dog will promote this mission by providing quiet companionship to children during forensic interviews, medical exams, therapy sessions, and legal proceedings, which will allow them to participate more fully in these activities.

Obtain Buy-in from Stakeholders

Reach out to stakeholders, educating them and asking for their support for the program. This might include your supervisors, other staff members, members of the multidisciplinary team, board of directors, presiding judge, landlord of your facility, county commissioners, and others. Gather written statements of support for your program. It is a good idea to get letters of support from your partner agencies if possible.

You must have permission for your facility dog to work on the premises – a courthouse facility dog does not have public access the way a service dog does (with the exception of Washington State ). We suggest that you get this permission in writing.

Choose a Handler

Decide on a handler or handlers for your courthouse facility dog. The primary handler should usually be someone who has at least 20 hours a week of direct client contact, and who can provide a home for the dog for its entire life.

  • Handler should have enough seniority to be a successful advocate for the dog.
  • Primary handler needs to have room in their life to provide a comfortable home for the facility dog – no dog-aggressive pet dogs, enthusiastic support from everyone who lives in the home, etc.
  • Handler should be someone who plans to stay with your agency for at least 5 or 6 years.

In addition to the primary handler, you may need a secondary handler. For instance, if a forensic interviewer is the primary handler, you will need a victim or family advocate to handle the dog for court accompaniment.

Some agencies vary from the primary/secondary handler setup. In a few instances, the caretaker of the dog does not handle the dog at work, but provides a home for the dog. Then at work, another professional handles the dog throughout the day. In addition, a few agencies have a team of several handlers that utilize the dogs in different ways throughout the week. ADI organizations vary widely in the flexibility that they allow in their placements – some will only allow one handler, who provides the home for the dog and also is the only person who handles the dog during the workday. Other ADI accredited organizations will work with you and consider multiple handlers or a caretaker home.

Create a Budget

Create a proposed budget for your program. You will need a different budget for each of the ADI organizations, as the cost of the dog and the travel costs will vary. The reason for building a budget at this point in the process is that it is usually necessay in order to get final approval from your agency, and the comparative costs of the various ADI organizations may be a factor in determining which one you apply to for a dog.

  1. The direct cost of dog
  2. Travel for an in-person interview, if required
  3. Travel expenses for team training
  4. Initial supplies
  5. Monthly upkeep for dog

Some possible sources for funding your Courthouse Dog Program:

  1. VOCA grant – the availability of this varies from state to state. 
  2. Asset forfeiture monies
  3. Unclaimed victim restitution funds
  4. Fundraising for the project if you are a nonprofit agency

Apply for a dog

Choose an ADI accredited organization and apply for a dog. Time between the multistep application process and receiving the trained dog will vary from a few months to 2 years.

Factors to consider in choosing an ADI organization:

  • How many handlers will you need? In the majority of situations, having two handlers is ideal You want the dog to be available throughout the time your client is involved with the legal system if possible. For instance, having the dog accompany a child in a forensic interview, medical exam, meet and greet with the prosecutor, and so on.
  • Do you want the dog to be placed with the handler or with your agency? Some ADI organizations place the facility dog with the individual handler, meaning that if the handler leaves your agency the dog would leave with the handler. Other ADI organizations place the dog with your agency, and if the handler leaves the agency, the ADI organization will train another handler for the facility dog.
  • What is your budget? Can you afford to pay for the dog? Some ADI organizations place their facility dogs free of charge, and others charge for the dog. Please consider all of your cots when comparing programs, as sometimes the more “expensive” organization may offer the customized training you need or other option that is important to you.

Write a Protocol

Write a protocol for your program. Our experience is that the shorter your protocol is, the better. Two key parts of any protocol are a list of priorities for use of the dog (to avoid conflict as much as possible) and a statement that the handler has final say about the use of the dog.

From Scotty’s House in Brazos County, TX:

The Scotty’s House Facility Dog will work with the children in the Brazos Valley who are being served by the staff at Scotty’s House. While most of the dog’s work will be done at Scotty’s House, the dog may accompany child victims/witnesses at any of the courthouses in the region, when needed. The presence of our dog in any courtroom will be at the discretion of the presiding judge.

The Facility Dog can be used for children (birth to 17 years) and adults who are developmentally delayed that meet the Scotty’s House case acceptance criteria including cases of child sexual abuse, severe physical abuse, child witnesses to violent crime, children at risk of abuse, and children falling under the guidelines of the county DEC (Drug Endangered Child) team. The dog is also available to any child who can demonstrate the need in a pretrial hearing where all parties are present.

The Facility Dog’s priority will be to provide accompaniment during:
1. Forensic interviews;
2. Medical exams;
3. Therapy sessions; and
4. Legal proceedings.

Cary Baker, primary handler of the facility dog, and Dr. Denise Peterson, secondary handler of the facility dog, will have complete discretion over the use of the dog in all circumstances taking into account the needs of the child, the availability of the dog, and the welfare of the dog.

Lake County (Illinois) State’s Attorney Mike Nerheim explains how their courthouse facility dog Mitch works at the child advocacy center:

Arrange Staff Training

Make sure everyone in your organization has important information about the dog. The staff members who are not handling the dog will need to be informed about how the dog will be assisting people and how they should interact with the dog to ensure he remains focused on his job. Ideally, this training should be done before your dog arrives.

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