Therapy Dogs in the Legal System
Everyone has had something happen in their life that they did not want to talk about. For some children who are victims of sexual abuse, they have an opportunity to testify, but in doing so reliving painful memories and experiences. Therapy animals are finding new places where they are needed, going from beyond the classroom or therapists office into the courtroom. Paws-for-Justice is a program that provides therapy dogs to help children through all steps of the litigation process.
Scott Baggett has been working with therapy dogs since 2004. He volunteers his time with Paws for Justice with his 8-year-old golden retriever La Vie, which is French for “The Life.” Scott is also a Delta Society evaluator and trainer of both therapy dogs and their handlers.
When asked what it takes to have your dog in the Paws for Justice program Mr. Baggett stressed training for both the dog and the handler. “Some people thought it was just about having a well controlled dog. Going into a hospital, even a courtroom setting, your dog might not do well in this setting. When you ask your team to come join you, depending on the facility, you have to look at both the team and the handler, and would this team be ok in this setting?” Mr. Baggett said even a bark might be enough to have the program shut down. If a handler doesn’t know how their dog will react, then Mr. Baggett can’t have them as part of the program.
There are many programs testing for therapy animals such as American Kennel Club, CGC, and Therapy Dog International. Most programs do not go far enough with their testing to provide facilities a very reliable team. Pet Partners (Delta changed their name) testing focuses on the handler, the dog, and the team. As an evaluator, Mr. Baggett at the end of the test will indicate to the handler the most appropriate place for the team to visit.
La Vie started his training at 8 weeks old. His hair was pulled, ears tweaked, he was turned upside down, and trained to be social. Being trained so young made La Vie an ideal therapy dog. The golden retriever breed is especially social and according to Mr. Baggett, perfect for this kind of work.
Mr. Baggett described the three phases of the litigation process: intake, deposition, and trial. Prior to the intake the child is asked if they would like to have a dog present. If the child agrees, the lawyer, social worker, child, handler and dog will go into the lawyer’s office. The handler wears noise cancelling headphones so what is said remains confidential.
Mr. Baggett has been a part of 28 cases. His involvement was mostly at intake, though he has been to 3 depositions and trial cases. He says having the dog around settles the child, who is often nervous. Though Florida passed a law on July 1st of 2011 that says if a child desires to have a dog in the courtroom they may, dogs are still not allowed in the courtroom. Mr. Baggett walks the child to the courtroom and waits outside with the child, parent, or the caregiver.
One case is particularly memorable to Mr. Baggett. At one intake there was a girl that they could not get to talk. La Vie was present at the time, along with Mr. Baggett and his noise cancelling headphones. After the intake the girl started talking about La Vie and her time with the dog. “We never really understood what the child was really taking in,” said Mr. Baggett.
However, work with therapy dogs in the courtroom has reached a roadblock because of the case of Rosie, a therapy dog in a New York City courtroom. Rosie responded to the distress of a 15-year-old girl testifying about when she was raped. When the girl could no longer continue, Rosie laid her head in the girl’s lap. The girl could then continue testifying, and afterwards kept hugging Rosie (see story here)
The defense moved to appeal on the grounds that Rosie helped the girl testify. Also, some defense lawyers claim that the cuteness of the dogs sways the juries in favor of the prosecution. Mr. Baggett will be taking part in a conference on victim advocacy in Florida about how therapy dogs may be used in a judicial setting while avoiding these thorny legal situations.
Mr. Baggett has been involved with animal training for years including agility and obedience training for his dog. He has taken his dog to group therapy settings, courtrooms, and hospitals. He is still active with La Vie in visiting victims and their families, as well as training for therapy dogs and their handlers.