Courthouse pet therapy program eases stress for victims, witnesses

Article from the Justice Coalition's 'Victim Advocate' newspaper

By Ray Tuenge Jr., editor, Victims' Advocate
Ninth Judicial Circuit photo

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The courthouse can be a stressful place. As you make your way through the metal detectors and down the hallways to your assigned courtroom, you start to feel the tension all around you. Almost everyone inside isn't here because they want to be. 

For victims, this is especially true. For no fault of their own they've been thrown into a situation where all eyes are on them and the defendant. They might have to take the stand and answer difficult questions. They might have to identify their attacker. It's a lot to ask of someone facing the most traumatizing experience of his or her life.

The job of the court is to get to the truth and witness testimonies are often the most powerful pieces of evidence. For any witness, it's crucial that they are comfortable enough to give their testimony. As a result, the Duval County Courthouse has sought to make these difficulties easier for victims and witnesses through their Pet Therapy Program.

The idea for a pet therapy program in Jacksonville first came in the late 1990s and early 2000s when Judge Elizabeth Senterfitt and former director of the victim witness advocate unit, Donna Kelley, were both working with cases involving children. They saw that children sometimes felt nervous or shy when answering questions presented to them in court.

"I was in the special assault unit at the State Attorney's Office and we would sometimes have to put kids on the stand," Senterfitt said. "Even adult victims could have real trouble sometimes testifying and talking." The solution came unexpectedly, out of one the darkest days in American history.

In 2001 the eyes of the world turned to New York City and Washington D.C. as the worst terrorist attack in American history unfolded. As firefighters and police officers began the 9/11 rescue effort, Senterfitt saw how dog therapy teams were used to comfort anxious workers and shocked survivors.

The next logical step was to start looking at other pet therapy programs around the country to see if one could be implemented in Jacksonville.

"4th Judicial Circuit therapy dogWe thought if they could have a dog by their side that would make them feel better, bring their blood pressure down, all those things that we know dogs do for people. It just made sense that might help them get through that testimony," Senterfitt said.

After seeing other successful courthouse therapy teams in Florida, the Duval County Courthouse started their own dog therapy program in 2012.

The concept of using dogs for therapeutic purposes has been around for a long time. The American Veterinary Medical Association officially accepted the human-animal bond in 1982 and countless clinical trials have shown that interacting with dogs can significantly reduce stress and anxiety. When a person interacts with a therapy animal, their heart rate and blood pressure decrease. This reduces cortisol, a hormone known to induce stress. The calming effect alleviates tension and encourages socialization-qualities vital for a victim or witness on the stand in a courtroom.

As might be expected, these dogs must have a temperament congruent with the atmosphere of a courtroom. Therapy dogs aren't subjected to the stringent requirements of service dogs, however, they do have to be certified through outfits like Independent Therapy Dogs, Inc. and the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. These programs test the dogs to make sure that they have a calm and gentle disposition suitable for therapy work. "They certify the dogs and go through a series of tests making sure that the dogs don't mind having their ears or tails pulled-that they don't have a problem with someone getting right in their face or have any things that would scare them," Senterfitt said. 

These attributes are especially important in a court setting. The dogs must be friendly and non-aggressive, while also maintaining composure acceptable for a court proceeding. The Pet Therapy Program has been a success for the most part, although there has been some concern among defense attorneys who have argued that having a dog present could prejudice a jury.

Senterfitt doesn't believe that having a dog present shifts a jury to lean one way or the other. They simply help to bring out the truth. She has even seen instances where dogs have been used without the jury even knowing that they were there.

When Senterfitt started the program she envisioned the dogs being more useful for children victims, but as the program has grown, she has seen that they benefit almost everyone there. 

"I would say that we have found that the dogs help lots of people in the courthouse including the employees." 

If you're ever at the Duval County Courthouse and see a dog, go ahead and give them a pet. They're there for you.

If you are interested in becoming a volunteer for the program, call 904-255-1270.

4th Judicial Circuit pet therapy team

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