23 October 2014
Justice Matters: Dogs find special place in court proceedings
The following reflections of Missouri Chief Justice Mary R. Russell make up her most recent Justice Matters column.
Despite what a casual observer may see in the hallways of some of our courthouses, Missouri’s courts have not “gone to the dogs.” Rather, canines are starting to make their presence known in proceedings as service dogs, helping provide justice in a new and unique way by relieving stress for those involved in what sometimes are anxiety-filled judicial proceedings.
Take Natalie, a Labrador mix, for example. Once too weak to walk and described as a sweet dog with an “old soul,” she is a service dog who is becoming more popular in Jefferson County circuit court proceedings in which tensions might run particularly high. For example, she can be found comforting children called upon to testify in cases involving the abuse of or by an adult.
Natalie came to the court this spring after rigorous screening and training through the Missouri Department of Corrections’ “puppies for parole” program, which since 2010 successfully has trained more than 2,700 stray and abandoned dogs that otherwise might have been euthanized. Inmates teach the dogs the social and obedience skills to make them more adoptable. Those like Natalie, with a special level of compassion, are trained to be service dogs.
The local judges who work with Natalie continue to be amazed by her uncanny knack to know just who in the courthouse is experiencing stress or anxiety, as they watch her single out those people and gently nuzzle them into a state of calm. Natalie recently helped calm an angry parent who walked into a custody hearing with a confrontational attitude. Sensing his mood, Natalie walked to him and put her head in his lap. As he focused on the dog, his tension waned, deescalating what otherwise might have turned into a security concern.
While Natalie mostly helps litigants and witnesses, sometimes her presence has a calming effect on the judges, attorneys and court staff, especially after a day of hearing particularly difficult cases, such as those involving child abuse or domestic violence.
Because of Natalie’s success, other trial courts in our state have asked “puppies for parole” for a service dog of their own. And still other courts work with local groups to bring in service dogs on an as-needed basis to help calm children going through emotionally difficult court proceedings. To paraphrase an old quote, if you want a friend in the courtroom, get a dog. That is exactly what Missouri trial courts are doing for the benefit of all those they serve.
We have a dog at the Supreme Court of Missouri, but it is in the form of a bust in memory of one special dog, “Old Drum.” He was at the center of a 1870s lawsuit in Johnson County. It was in this case that the phrase “a dog is a man’s best friend” became famous. Through service dogs like Natalie, this adage is proving itself true in courtrooms across Missouri. We thank them for their wonderful service to our communities.
Photo: Natalie, service dog in the Jefferson County circuit court