Dogs have long been used in classrooms for children with special needs, as visitors in senior citizens’ homes, and as comfort for patients in hospitals. Now canine companions are being used to help crime victims cope with the aftermath of violence and abuse.

therapy dogs

Therapy Dogs- Animal Assisted Therapy

The integration of animal-assisted therapy into clinical psychology was first credited in 1962 to the child psychologist, Boris Levinson, with his paper published in Mental Hygiene, “The dog as a ‘co therapist’.” Levinson discovered he could make significant progress with a disturbed child when Levinson’s dog, Jingles, attended therapy sessions. He went on to find that many children who were withdrawn and uncommunicative would interact positively with the dog (Levinson, 1969). Animal-assisted therapy has a long, but undocumented history, and it has only been in the last half of the twentieth century that research and professional response has been conducted on the use of animals in therapy.

Dogs,and animals in general,can work wonders for the mental health of humans. Studies show that animal contact lowers blood pressure, causes a release of dopamine in the system and calms the nervous system help us release oxytocin, which is the calming hormone and the bonding hormone,. “And when you are able to have that hormone going through your body, as opposed to the stress hormone, cortisol, it’s much easier to tell your story.” That’s why “courtroom dogs” are so important: They alleviate anxiety for children of all ages while those kids provide crucial testimony in their cases — testimony that might otherwise be too traumatic for them to rehash. Plus, the dogs literally stand by the kids through it all — even when even their parents can’t.

Therapy Dogs- Courthouse Facility Dogs

A courthouse facility dog is a professionally trained assistance dog, suitable for providing quiet companionship to vulnerable individuals in legal settings without causing any disruption of the proceedings. Facility dogs are working dogs that are specially chosen because of their calm demeanor and ability to work in a high stress environment thereby decreasing the risk of creating legal issues. When their work day is over they go home with their primary handler and are “off duty.”

According to a 2009 publication from the American Humane Association, the use of pet therapy dogs in the criminal justice system requires that the animals be treated as participants in a mutually beneficial relationship and that the needs of the animals must always be considered, accommodated and balanced with the needs of the clients. This requirement means that if a therapy dog began to show signs of stress while in the witness box with a child, the dog’s owner would have to immediately remove the dog. This could be very disruptive to the court proceeding and leave a child feeling abandoned. Pet therapy dogs must be on leash with their owner/handler whenever they are working.  Pet therapy dogs are generally limited to working no more than 2 hours a day in order to avoid over-stressing the dogs.

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Therapy Dogs- Final Thoughts

As a child progresses through the legal system, it is most helpful if the same dog can accompany him at every step along the way. As children grow to know one specific dog, a bond forms between them so that the dog is of even more comfort to them during these stages. Due to the nature of volunteer work, as well as the two- hour limitation per day on a pet therapy dog’s work, a therapy dog team is unlikely to be available for all stages of proceedings or be able to participate in long court proceedings that last for several hours.

Mike Callahan

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