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Aroostook County District Attorney Todd Collins wants to use courthouse dogs to comfort children and victims of violent crimes. No objection here.
“[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, as reported by St. John Valley Times and Fiddlehead Focus reporter Hannah Catlin. “Even for me, when a dog is present, that anxiety level just sort of relaxes. Especially when you have a well-behaved, trained dog.”
This would make Aroostook County the first Maine district to use official courthouse facility dogs. Penobscot County does have an unofficial therapy dog named Brandi, owned by Register of Probate Renee Stupak.
“She’s a big part of this place,” Stupak told the BDN’s Judy Harrison in 2019. “It’s been a very positive thing for this courthouse.”
A total of 271 dogs are used in 41 other states, according to the Courthouse Dogs Foundation.
In 2017, a superior court judge in Washington state spoke with Pew about the use of a yellow Labrador named Kerris to help witnesses who find it difficult to testify. This included children who have been abused.
“Sometimes they need the leash in their hand. Sometimes they need the dog touching their feet. Sometimes they just need to see the dog,” Judge Jeanette Dalton said.
As Catlin pointed out, studies have repeatedly shown that when people interact with dogs, it can help reduce anxiety and produce pleasure chemicals like serotonin and oxytocin. A study from Washington State University scientists in 2019 found that petting dogs or cats can reduce stress hormone levels.
“Just 10 minutes can have a significant impact,” Patricia Pendry, an associate professor in the school’s Department of Human Development, said at the time. “Students in our study that interacted with cats and dogs had a significant reduction in cortisol, a major stress hormone.”
While making witnesses feel more comfortable in court is a worthy aim in itself, this also has practical implications for the justice system, both in terms of people’s willingness to testify and their ability to do it calmly and accurately. Collins, the Aroostook County DA, has pointed out that anxiety and distraction can impact the quality of someone’s testimony.
“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.”
As far as we can tell, there are two potential hurdles related to courthouse facility dogs that could stand in the way of this good idea being let off the leash here in Maine. The first is cost, and the second is a concern raised by some defense attorneys that the dogs’ presence could unfairly prejudice a jury against the defendant or make the witness seem more sympathetic.
Collins has asked county commissioners to consider two courthouse dogs in the budget, which he said would cost $8,000 initially for adoption fees and training, and then roughly $5,000 each year for food and vet care (the dogs would likely train and live with someone who works with the DA’s office). That’s not an insignificant cost. But neither is the more than $13 million Aroostook County government is getting through the federal American Rescue Plan funding. Given the ways that the COVID-19 pandemic created a backlog of unresolved criminal cases and helped bring even more unsurety to an already anxiety-filled system, using some of this money on the increasingly popular approach of courthouse dogs makes sense to us.
Regarding concerns from some defense attorneys, we’re unconvinced. Courts have been, too. Dalton, the judge in Washington, told Pew she doubts that the dogs have a prejudicial impact on the jury. She said that the calming effect for witnesses can actually help defendants in some cases.
“I’ve seen jurors visibly impacted by kids so stressed on the witness stand that they start crying or shut down. Jurors look like they want to leap over the jury box and cuddle that kid,” Dalton said in 2017. “So having the dog there helps everybody on both sides.”
Every now and again, it falls to a newspaper to take a bold stand. We are prepared to do that once again, even if it might be controversial. We’re not afraid to say it loudly: We like dogs. And we can see why having dogs in Maine courthouses, like in many other states, could be a helpful and worthy investment.