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Therapy Dogs in the Courtroom

Updated: Jul 28, 2020

Courthouse Dogs

Courthouse dogs can accompany children or other victims feel more at ease when they have to testify. In some cases, the dog is hidden from other viewers so as to not influence the proceedings. There are about 35 states that have courthouse dogs. They make it much easier for children to deal with a very difficult situation. In some cases the dog remains hidden from view in order not to influence the proceedings.

Honolulu's first courthouse dog Pono, accompanies children who have to testify in court, often in cases of sexual or domestic violence. The name Pono means in Hawaiian “to make whole or to make right.” Having Pono with the children at every stage of the process significantly reduces the level of stress associated with these potentially traumatic events.

Honolulu is one city that also has a Veterans’ Court – and a visiting courthouse dog. Athena, owned by Ron Stebbins, an Army veteran and dog trainer, visits the courtroom. She is very instrumental in helping to calm veterans as they face a judge. Athena is a Boxer, adopted from the Hawaiian Humane Society, and she has been trained to become a therapy dog.

Athena the Courthouse Dog at Veterans Court

Athena also visits children with a variety of disabilities, adult day care programs, and many other locations in her role as a Hawaiian Humane Society “Joy Ambassador.” An article in Hawaii’s HMSA, Island Scene tells the story, noting that it is not unusual for the nine-year-old dog to face a group of sixteen energetic pre-schoolers at the St. Francis Intergenerational Center in Ewa Beach, calling out “Aaaaathenaaa! and piling on for hugs, pets and chases. She’ll even go down the playground slide to make them laugh and cheer. It’s all in a day’s work for a trained therapy dog!” says Stebbins.

Therapy dogs react well to attention from strangers. This is very different from dogs trained for other purposes, such as Law Enforcement Working Dogs, and Service Dogs (such as guide dogs for the blind). These dogs, who are not pets, will often wear a vest saying something like “Service or Working Dog, Do Not Pet.” In some cases Military Police Dogs specifically trained to attack perpetrators, are not allowed to be touched or petted by anyone other than the handler, in order to maintain a demeanor that is more vigilant around strangers and only responsive to the handler’s instructions.

Handlers with therapy dogs, on the other hand, encourage contact. Their therapy dogs, (if they wear vests), might say: Please ask to pet me, or even as seen at the Human-Animal Bond Program at Tripler Army Medical Center, Therapy Dog, Pet Me.

Below is an interview I did with Pono's handler about the Courthouse Dog program in Honolulu.

Genie Joseph, PhD

Director: The Human-Animal Connection


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