Should therapy dogs be allowed in the courtroom as support for victims?
Rosie the courtroom dog was cute, fuzzy -- and controversial. "Rosie is a golden retriever therapy dog who specializes in comforting people when they are under stress. Both prosecutors and defense lawyers have described her as adorable, though she has been known to slobber" (Glaberson 2011). An example of how Rosie was used can be seen in the trial of a rapist of a fourteen-year-old girl. The girl was able to hold Rosie and pet her while she testified. Advocates of 'Rosies' suggest that dogs can provide helpful emotional sustenance to vulnerable defendants, especially children, when they are struggling with uncomfortable memories. However, opponents of therapy dogs argue that they can unfairly slant the jury against a defendant simply by their presence, regardless of the person's true guilt or innocence. "Defense lawyers argue that the dogs may unfairly sway jurors with their cuteness and the natural empathy they attract, whether a witness is telling the truth or not, and some prosecutors insist that the courtroom dogs can be a crucial comfort to those enduring the ordeal of testifying, especially children" (Glaberson 2011). This essay will present both sides of the story regarding the appropriateness of therapy dogs in the courtroom but will ultimately argue that the pressure to pass a law to permit these animals in the courtroom does not sufficiently protect defendant's rights.
Proponents of the use of therapy dogs point out that service dogs have long been allowed in the courtroom. No one argues that a guide dog for the blind or a service dog for a disabled person is so cute and cuddly they make it impossible to give the person a fair trial. Not all service dogs help people with obvious disabilities. Some assist people with epilepsy or provide emotional comfort to persons with agoraphobia or autism. Allowing a dog to act as an emotional support for a person in the courtroom is just a natural extension of this function. When the judge presiding at the trial of the rapist of the young teenage girl ruled in favor of allowing the therapy dog to be present, his rationale was that it "was similar to the teddy bear that a New York appeals court said in 1994 could accompany a child witness" (Glaberson 2011). The girl stated that she found the prospect of being in the presence of her rapist frightening and the dog was comforting. The defense attorney, however, would argue that unlike a teddy bear, the dog can react to the girl, seeming to confirm her testimony, based upon its naturally empathetic nature.
This was apparently borne out during the actual trial. "At least once when the teenager hesitated in Judge Greller's courtroom, the dog rose and seemed to push the girl gently with her nose" (Glaberson 2011). The dog, partially out of training and partially out of natural canine genetics, empathizes with a human being who is nervous and acts tenderly and comfortingly towards it. Jurors, however, are apt to mistake this as validating the witness' testimony. "As a therapy dog, Rosie responds to people under stress by comforting them, whether the stress comes from confronting a guilty defendant or lying under oath" (Glaberson 2011). The defense attorneys for the accused said that "jurors are likely to conclude that the dog is helping victims expose the truth. 'Every time she stroked the dog…it sent an unconscious message to the jury that she was under stress because she was telling the truth'" (Glaberson 2011). There is, the defense attorneys pointed out, no way for them to cross-examine a dog.
The prosecutor in the case insisted that Rosie was there to comfort, not to influence "These dogs ease the stress and ease the trauma so a child can take the stand," (Glaberson 2011). Without dogs like Rosie, young defendants might not have the courage to enter the witness box and the U.S. Constitution stipulates the right of the accused to confront his or her accuser. "Rosie stayed with this child in the witness box, kept her head on the girl's lap and knew when this girl was struggling emotionally and responded by gently nudging the girl's arm. With this kind of support, the girl was able to complete this grueling and painful testimony without further trauma and her abuser was sentenced to 25 years…