One of the secrets for getting more sexual assault convictions across the line could be sitting right at your feet.
For many sexual assault victims, the prospect of telling their story can be extremely stressful. Many say they are re-traumatised by the whole experience.
For children especially, courtrooms can be highly intimidating places, which is why various states in America now allow specially trained ‘courthouse dogs’ to sit with, comfort, and soothe victims as they give evidence during police investigations, and later, in court.
Trained from when they are just two days old, these tiny pups become expertly skilled at remaining calm, regardless of how stressful or tense a situation gets. And it is this disposition, and the general calming effect of the dog’s presence, which is helping to soothe children and other trauma victims, so they can recount their whole story without becoming overwhelmed by the situation.
“Right from birth, even before they can see or hear, [the trainer] will start handling the puppy. They will put the puppy on a cool surface like a kitchen bench and then snuggle the puppy to warm it up. Introducing tiny little stressors like this makes the puppies very resilient to stress,” says Celeste Walsen, Executive Director of the Courthouse Dogs Foundation.
Then, between eight weeks and 18 months of age, the puppies are exposed to all sorts of people and situations: wearing “puppy training capes” they are taken to hockey games “where people are often upset and yelling”, restaurants, movie theatres, airports, city buses and so on. The pups then receive two years of professional training and are required to pass the same public access test given to guide dogs. So by the time they “graduate”, the dogs are completely at ease in working alongside trauma victims.
But while the dogs are said to derive great pleasure and fulfilment from their work, it is the benefits for the victims which are truly remarkable.
“One of the things that happens to trauma victims, is that they often find it difficult to calmly put together a chronological story of what’s happened to them,” says Walsen. So police interviews and cross examinations often distress victims and cause them to either dissociate from what is going on, or alternatively, to relive and re-experience the trauma as though it is occurring in real time. This “keeps them from telling their side of the story”, and causes many victims to “choke up” or “lose the ability to speak”, especially when pushed for details.
However, when victims are able to cuddle a facility dog, or watch it calmly sleeping at their feet, this can anchor the victim and help them feel safe, reassured, and in control.
“For a child or victim who is feeling anxious, the dog lying there quietly sleeping or even snoring, gives them the message it is a safe place.”
And the result? Children as young as four and five are finding the courage and composure to stand up and articulate their experiences. “We find that there are children who will say to us ‘I can’t tell you what’s happened to me, but I can tell the dog’. They then look into the dog’s non-judgemental face and begin speaking about what’s happened to them,” says Walsen.
Meet Caber, he’s a ‘courthouse dog’ helping sex abuse victims. (Post continues after gallery)