Facility dogs are used in many courtrooms across the country – including Florida. The dogs are specially trained service animals, which are frequently used to help calm child witnesses while testifying about a traumatic event in court. The dogs have been lauded for their ability to reduce the stress that witnesses experience – and to enable them to focus better on their testimony.
However, defense attorneys have also raised objections to the use of such animals in court. They argue that the use of a dog to comfort a nervous witness could make juries more sympathetic to the witness – in the same way that juries may have greater sympathy towards a child clutching a teddy bear on the witness stand.
In addition, defense attorneys contend that dogs could introduce an emotional response in a courtroom that is inappropriate for a trial. During a trial, the aim is to seek out the truth by testing the evidence against a specific set of standards. When a dog is brought in to assist a witness, its aim is to comfort the witness. However, comforting a witness goes against the fundamental goals of the trial.
Ultimately, defense attorneys who are critical of the use of facility dogs in court are concerned that such dogs could affect jurors’ perception of a witness in a way that ultimately denies the defendant the due process that’s entitled to them under the Constitution.
Earlier this year, the American Bar Association issued a set of recommendations to help abate the potential for prejudice when using facility dogs in court:
- Courts should question witnesses with the dog present during voir dire in an effort to determine whether the dog would sway a jury.
- The facility dog should be brought into the court room when the jury is not present and remain out of site during the entire testimony.
- The judge should give the jury clear instructions that they should not draw any conclusions from the use of the facility dog.
- The facility dog should not be referred to as a “comfort dog” – as this could suggest that the witness is a person who is in need of comfort, which could lead to prejudice.
Dogs are amazing creatures who have been proven to improve the mental and physical health of those around them. Nonetheless, the implications of using such animals in a courtroom setting should be carefully considered. Witness comfort is certainly valuable – but justice and fairness are most important in a court of law.