Having to go up on the witness stand in a courthouse can be a frightening and intimidating time for anyone. For an adult or child that has experienced a traumatic event, it can be even worse. To lessen the anxieties and tensions in the courtroom, the foundation Courthouse Dogs was created by Ellen O’Neill Stephens and Celeste Walsen.
They knew from the get-go it is the perfect solution to helping children and adults feel better and more confident when they have to testify in court. Ellen and Celeste make a strong team for the cause, Ellen is a retired prosecutor and Celeste is a veterinarian.
O’Neill explained to Upworthy, “When a person is reliving a traumatic event, they experience physiological reactions similar to what they had when the event was taking place. This adversarial system [of testifying in front of your attacker] is brutal. A lot of people come out damaged by it.”
This is especially true for children who are often too traumatized to speak of their abuse, especially in front of their attacker. Many kids shut down and don’t want to talk, especially if their parents are not allowed in the interview with them. When you introduce a dog to the situation everything changes, the child begins to pet the dog, calm down and is much more likely to open up.
Courthouse Dogs are there for victims in and out of the courtroom, such as in child advocacy centers and during prosecutor interviews as well.
“These dogs should be available to any vulnerable witness that would have difficulty talking about what happened. That could be an adult rape victim or family member whose child has been murdered and have to testify in court.”
Simply being in the presence of a relaxed dog reduces anxiety and makes us feel safer. That’s because, “We count on dogs to tell us when there’s a bad guy around.” When a dog seems calm we naturally feel more at ease.
Not just any dog makes the cut, it takes around 2 years to train a dog for the job. Training starts when they are just a puppy.
Over the past 11 years the non-profit organization has grown to include 87 working dogs, mostly golden retrievers and Labradors, comforting witnesses in 28 states. The awesome impact these dogs have had is now going global with dogs stationed in Chile and Canada.
The overall goal of Courthouse Dogs is for canines to be available to anyone involved in a crime, regardless of age, gender or even innocence. Ellen said, “I think it’s revolutionizing this process. I’m fairly confident this practice is here to stay and it will only grow.”