How dogs can help in legal proceedings: a resource that was born in the United States and is slowly coming to Argentina - RED/ACCIÓN

How dogs can help in legal proceedings: a resource that was born in the United States and is slowly coming to Argentina

 Una iniciativa de Dircoms + RED/ACCION

Since its founding in 2008, Courthouse Dogs Foundation seeks to raise awareness of the benefits of having a courthouse dog in the depositions of adults and minors. Its work has spread to the United States, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and, recently, Argentina. In 2023, two minors were assisted by a dog from Bocalán Argentina before testifying in a Gesell chamber.

How dogs can help in legal proceedings: a resource that was born in the United States and is slowly coming to Argentina

Intervention by Marisol Echarri.

Ellen O'Neill-Stephens worked as a prosecutor for 26 years in a Seattle (USA) courtroom. At first, she loved her job, but over time she saw firsthand how victims and witnesses who had suffered trauma presented their testimony in court. This included minors, who in the United States have to present their testimony in front of the judge, jury, and defendant. "I saw the trauma from the exposure that not only children suffered but also people working in the system. I started having nightmares and didn't feel like going to work," O'Neill says.

At that time when her son Sean, who had cerebral palsy, finished high school, O'Neill decided to find an assistance dog (trained to assist with basic tasks and/or be emotionally supportive for people with disabilities) to accompany him and help him in his social interactions. Once a week, the attorney took Jeeter, the dog, to the courthouse, since her son was unable to care for him. So it was that, in 2003, Jeeter accompanied twin sisters in King County Superior Court (Washington, USA) during their trial testimony.

"It was very successful because all the children were more open to participating in the court process when they were at Jeeter's side," says Ellen. "Some prosecutors would ask me if they could take him with them to accompany the minors who had to testify in their courts." Since then, the attorney promoted the idea of using trained dogs to provide comfort to children and adult victims or witnesses of crime and to support minors and adults in mental health and drug courts.

In 2004, Canine Companions for Independence, an organization that provides assistance dogs to adults and children with disabilities, became the first organization to place a dog to work in a Seattle prosecutor's office. Four years later, O'Neill and her veterinarian friend Celeste Walsen founded the Courthouse Dog Foundation, an organization that educates legal professionals about the advantages of including assistance dogs in investigations, trials, and other stressful court proceedings.

The institution also supports assistance dog organizations that train and match assistance dogs with legal professionals working with victims, witnesses and other vulnerable people. These are members of Assistance Dogs International (ADI), a coalition of assistance dog training programs around the world. It also encourages and facilitates scientific research on the use of assistance dogs in courtrooms.

Stilson, a black Labrador, was the second dog in the United States to be officially placed in a prosecutor's office in November 2006.(Image: courtesy of Courthouse Dogs Foundation and Marisol Echarri)

Having an assistance dog in a statement helps to lower blood pressure and heart rate sometimes only in the presence of the dog, without petting. In addition, some long-term effects include psychological health wellness, social communication, and improvements in self-esteem.

In 2018, a National Children's Alliance study conducted research where two groups of children were separated and given a forensic interview. The first group had a legal assistance dog and the second did not. The researchers found that the children in the first group showed lower heart rate, blood pressure, and salivary cortisol than the children in the second group.

Today there are more than 400 judicial assistance dogs distributed in 41 states in the United States. The organization is also working with institutions in Canada, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, France, Belgium and Italy to provide the service and has begun the process of including assistance dogs in Ireland and the Netherlands.

Having a courthouse assistance dog at a deposition can have long-term effects such as the ability to establish social contacts, reduced feelings of loneliness and improved self-esteem (Image: courtesy of Courthouse Dogs Foundation and intervention by Marisol Echarri).

How to choose a dog

The work carried out by O'Neill and Walsen begins when someone from the legal field approaches to request an assistance dog for their courtroom. ADI determines if the person is qualified to take care of the animal. If so, a dog is assigned to a handler, a person who usually works in the legal system and is responsible for dogs not assigned to a specific person. "Not everyone is qualified for this, and even if ADI approves the request, you have to wait to be assigned a dog, and that can take up to one or two years," says O'Neill.

As the dogs will be in the courts for several years and are expected to work at least 20 hours per week, ADI also ensures they are treated properly. Additionally, the organization examines the dogs thoroughly for two years to confirm that the animal can tolerate the environment. They often cannot work with someone with a disability or working in the legal system. "They are like police dogs, helping the handler do a better job," says Ellen.

The handler is responsible for determining if the dog is not comfortable at any moment. For example, if it spends two hours with someone who constantly pets it while talking, it may get tired and need a break. When the situation is too intense, the dog takes time off from work to recover.

In Latin America

Twenty years ago, Margarita Ziade, director of Bocalán Argentina, saw the lack of knowledge in our country about animal-assisted intervention. Therefore, she decided to train at the Fundación Bocalán in Spain, which works to improve the quality of life for people with disabilities through animal assistance, to propose the possibility of a branch in Argentina.

In 2012, Bocalán Argentina was born, an organization that conducts assisted interventions in its office in Villa Luro (CABA) and trains assistance dogs for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and for people with reduced mobility. They also train facility dogs, which would be "courthouse facility dog." "They are an intermediate point between a dog that performs therapeutic interventions and an assistance dog because these are delivered to a specific person with a specific disability or issue," says Ziade. "In contrast, courthouse facility dogs support multiple people, whether children or adults, with different problems at the time of testifying or before or after this event." In the United States, this type of dog can be found not only in courts but also in hospitals and educational centers.

Ziade contacted the founders of the Courthouse Dog Foundation to replicate their work in Argentina. In 2019, O'Neill and Walsen traveled to Buenos Aires to train professionals, and Bocalán Argentina obtained certification from ADI. However, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the process slowed down.

A courthouse facility dog or facility dog is not a typical assistance dog since it doesn't aid a person with a disability nor has public access; instead, it assists professionals in enhancing the quality of their work. (Image: courtesy of Courthouse Dogs Foundation and intervention by Marisol Echarri)

Beginnings in Argentina

In 2019, parallel to the work of Bocalán Argentina, the Therapeutic Assistance Dogs Program was launched by the Public Defender's Office of the Judicial Power of the City of Buenos Aires. Titan, a golden retriever, became the first courthouse facility dog in Argentina. In 2021, due to the positive reception and results, Brownie, an Australian Labradoodle, was added. Until March 2023, the animals accompanied 889 minors aged 3 to 18 to testify in the Specialized Interview Room (SEE) of the Ministry.

However, that project does not have the international certification of ADI. "I think it's great that there are more spaces like this because we can't help all the children, but it has to be done with criteria. I'm not very aware of how they develop their protocols," says Ziade.

On the other hand, Carolina Wathelet, secretary of the 23rd National Criminal and Correctional Court, found Bocalán Argentina's proposal and enrolled in the assistance dog training course. In 2020, she participated in a virtual seminar with the founders of the Courthouse Dogs Foundation for individuals and organizations interested in implementing the program. As a result of this training, in 2020, she submitted a project to the forensic medical body through the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation to implement the use of facility dogs before or after the testimony of a minor in a Gesell chamber.

In Argentina, according to Article 250 bis of the Criminal Procedure Code of the Nation, all minors under 15 years of age who have to testify regarding sexual abuse crimes must be heard by professionals in a specially equipped cabinet known as the Gesell chamber. An interview is conducted, recorded, and the court, prosecution, and defense of the accused can be present or observe it remotely.

"If the child who has to testify likes dogs and can seek the assistance of one, on the day of the testimony, they leave with a different, nicer memory, as they are going to a new place to tell something unpleasant to someone they don't know," says Wathelet. "They have the memory of petting a dog, which reduces their anxiety and can help them recount what happened."

The pilot program presented to the forensic medical body has not yet started. However, in October 2023, under the order of the interim judge of Court No. 23, Javier Sánchez Sarmiento, there was the accompaniment of a judicial assistance dog in the testimony of two minors.

Ziade went to the court where she met the 11 and 14-year-old girls and introduced them to Aretha, a ten-year-old Labrador. She told them that Aretha was trained and worked with different children. Despite having little time, the minors fed her, petted her, and played for a while. They took her from where they were to the forensic medical center to testify. "We asked the guardian who had taken them how he perceived the interaction, and he said he saw them very happy, and it had been a good experience," says Wathelet.

Aretha was the ten-year-old Labrador chosen to accompany two minors to testify in a Gesell chamber in October 2023. (Image: courtesy of Carolina Wathelet and intervention by Marisol Echarri)


There are some factors that slow down the process of having a judicial assistance dog in Argentina today. Ziade mentions that she met with social workers and courts, but there are many procedures and tests when implementing the processes. "In this case, it is a very disruptive tool for the formality of the Judiciary," says Ziade. Wathelet comments, "The idea of the project requires further analysis by the people who have to authorize it. It needs to be implemented gradually, and there must be time to train people who will assist with dogs."

Additionally, the cost of the service plays a significant role. In the United States, there is a charge for the dog's training and the training of the court that will receive it. "I don't propose that system because I believe that in Argentina, there is still much work to be done and discovered on the subject," says Ziade.

This article is part of the Soluciones platform, an alliance between Río Negro and RED/ACCIÓN.

The original article was published on November 20, 2023.