Aroostook County District Attorney Todd Collins wants to adopt a dog.
It wouldn’t be his pet — he’s not much of a dog person, himself — rather it would be a courthouse therapy dog stationed in his office.
Collins is hoping Aroostook County can become the first district in Maine to employ courthouse dogs to comfort children and victims of violent crimes throughout the legal process. The goal is to abate the stress and psychological damage incurred as survivors and witnesses relive the traumatic events that brought them to court.
There are 271 such dogs working in 41 states and Washington, D.C. — but there are no official courthouse dogs in Maine. Legal experts, including Collins, argue that these specially trained dogs not only comfort witnesses, but can actually improve the quality of testimony by reducing anxiety and adrenaline.
“[People have] suffered a trauma usually at the hands of someone they loved and cared about, and it’s hard to talk about — hard to relive,” Collins said. “Even for me, when a dog is present, that anxiety level just sort of relaxes. Especially when you have a well-behaved, trained dog.”
In mid-September, Collins asked county commissioners to consider setting aside a budget to hire two courthouse therapy dogs. The dogs would cost $8,000 up front for adoption fees and training, and then approximately $5,000 a year for food, veterinary care and other essentials, he said.
A volunteer from the district attorney’s office — likely a victim witness advocate or attorney — would train with each dog, handle it on the job and take it home at the end of the day.
The commissioners will consider the request, and then decide whether to include funding for the project when they assemble the county budget in the coming months.
It’s been a few years since Collins first had the idea of bringing on therapy dogs, but he said that during COVID-19 and the ongoing backlog in Maine courts, victims and witnesses have seemed more anxious than ever. Cases are taking longer to move through the courts, and sometimes, people are called into court multiple times before they have the chance to testify.
Plus, if someone is anxious and distracted, they’re less likely to provide quality testimony, and may have difficulty recalling events and answering questions, Collins said.
“For victims of crime, you’re asking them to relive their worst day over and over again,” Collins said. “It makes it harder for people to want to come in and talk about these things.”
Collins hopes to use the dogs in a number of situations inside and outside of the courtroom. Children, for example, are often brought to the district attorney’s office and court even when they aren’t involved in the case. Even just being in that environment can be a traumatizing experience, especially if a loved one is going through a trial, he said.
Aroostook County’s dogs — if approved — would train with Houlton-based Purpose Pups — a company that specializes in training service and therapy dogs.
Purpose Pups head trainer Tyler Jones knows firsthand the therapeutic potential dogs can have for people who are moving through the criminal justice system. Jones began training dogs while serving a nine-year sentence in federal prison for non-violent marijuana crimes, and started Purpose Pups when he got out earlier this year.
“It was very difficult [in prison]. You were basically dehumanized. You were referred to as an inmate number. You can’t show compassion. You can’t show weakness. You can’t show love,” Jones said. “When I found the dog training program, I was able to be my silly, goofy, loving self and not have any judgment.”
Now, Jones has a service dog of his own to help him overcome the post-traumatic stress from his time in prison.
Jones trained roughly 40 service and therapy dogs while he was incarcerated, including courthouse dogs. It’s no mistake that courts in most states make use of them, and the results are backed by science, Jones said.
Studies have long shown that when people interact with dogs, their brains produce pleasure chemicals like serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin — all of which can help reduce anxiety, even in the short term.
“The easiest way to get a true confession, a true revelation of the facts, is to have people feel comfortable,” Jones said. “Not only would this be good for the courthouse, but it would be good for the DA’s office to bring the dog to the witness … Here’s this dog that’s going to take your pain and be OK holding it.”