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Building Unified Therapy Dog Standards and Practices

This article is a follow up to Therapy Dogs in the Legal System (article here). Scott Baggett attended the Florida Victim Advocacy Conference to meet with other therapy dog program leaders and interested parties in July of 2012.

While the conference focused on many aspects of victim advocacy, Baggett attended a session dedicated to the creation of a standard protocol for therapy dogs in Florida courtrooms. While the law allowing therapy dogs into courtrooms has been passed (law H251), there is still uncertainty regarding how it can be implemented. Florida is currently the only state with such a law on its books. Much of the hesitancy hinges on the outcome of the Rosie case mentioned in the last article (for a reminder see the article here).

There were fifteen people from various counties in Florida. Three of the four therapy dog programs were represented. Baggett described the session as “informational. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but had a few thoughts in mind”.

One of the therapy dog practitioner’s objectives was to create a comprehensive document detailing standard practices and guidelines for attorneys and judges in the Florida legal system. The document was to specify requirements for the handler, the dog, the court system, and how these groups work together. The practitioners want a protocol, something that creates a consistent and excellent program in Florida. Baggett hopes that by giving judges and attorneys these explicit rules and measures that they will be more comfortable allowing therapy dogs into the different stages of legal proceedings. This document aims to create a unified approach, bringing consistency to a system where counties often deal with therapy dog inclusion differently.

The TASK document (here) is currently the only piece of material that exists as a therapy dog practices guideline. Baggett and others believe it is far too general.TASK is not equipped to answer specific questions, such as when is the best place to use a male or female dog? Is one dog better for either situation? What if the victim is a young girl? Will dogs of a different sex impact her differently? These are questions Baggett and other members of the conference discussed during their session.

Another point of discussion was the standard to which dog and handler teams would be held. Baggett said, “We want to be sure that we are confident in dog teams that come into our courts. A national registry would be the first step to getting into a courtroom.” Therapy dogs would be required to be on a national registry, such as Pet Partners (formerly Delta Society). Once this step is passed, dog and handler teams would have to be checked once again to be sure both the dog and the handler could be in the courtroom.

Following the discussion about their new guidelines project, there was an open discussion afterwards, the “real meat of what we want to do as a group across the whole state of Florida”, says Baggett. Points of discussion included the impact of the size of the dog, whether big dogs or small dogs were better as therapy animals. Consensus was size does not matter, so long as the team is solid and capable.

This project to create guidelines was spearheaded by Coleen Chaney, vice president of the Florida Network of Victim Service, and a social worker with the Largo Police department. She works to help advocates in the legal system and has direct service with survivors of crime, sometimes with the aid of canines.

In 2009 the Largo Police Department facilitated the creation of an enhanced service for minor survivors of crime, a free service allowing a certified therapy dog to accompany the minor wherever assistance was needed. Chaney reports the dogs were able to successfully calm the children down, allowed them to be more receptive to direction, and made testimony articulate and clear. Other participants from the conference were also able to report on their stories of successful therapy dog interventions.

Chaney notes that as a practitioner on the ground these benefits are self evident to her and others who have witnessed therapy dog interventions first hand. The challenge lies in how to convince a state attorney that a dog is an asset for children in court proceedings. Research has indicated the presence and interaction with a therapy dog can stimulate the release of oxytocin and increase a child’s willingness to cooperate. These are significant, tangible results that need to be conveyed to the attorneys and judges. The document is currently being developed by a number of the conference attendees as well as Chaney. Currently in the middle of compiling information and procedures, she says it is exciting work.

Coleen Chaney describes her motivation for implementing therapy dogs in the courtroom, asking us to “think in terms of child development. Small eyes, small ears, in the scale of a public government building with 20 deputies, then being asked to detail a sexual experience to a stranger (the attorney) you’ve never met. Consider right at security, a therapy dog, to lessen some anxiety.” The therapy dogs create a comforting presence in an otherwise large and formidable environment.

Scott Baggett echoes her sentiments about implementing therapy dogs in the courtroom, saying “if it helps kids across the country, that’s what it’s all about.”

  1. interviews
  2. Legal aspects
  3. Liability
  4. therapy animals

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