Dogs bring hugs, tail-wags and some controversy to America’s courthouses

Trakr, Comet and Star are courthouse dogs in California.  (VENTURA COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY OFFICE)
Trakr, Comet and Star are courthouse dogs in California. (VENTURA COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY OFFICE)

Summary

Far more pooches are working in the justice system, but defense lawyers worry their cuteness could sway juries; ‘Comet’ sports a vest and bow tie and sits in the witness box.

In California’s Ventura County, there’s a well-dressed regular at the local courthouse who always lays down on the job.

Comet, a 3-year-old black lab, wears a vest and bow tie to court and settles into the witness box before a trial starts. Jurors, who could be biased by the dog’s presence, are none the wiser. Unless Comet, snuggled at the testifying witness’s feet, nods off.

“The dog snores and it can get really stressful for us," says Jennifer Barbettini, who works with crime victims at the Ventura County district attorney’s office. The witness typically nudges Comet awake before anyone notices.

The pack is growing. More than 320 courthouse dogs are working across the U.S., more than triple that of a decade ago, according to Ellen O’Neill-Stephens, founder of the nonprofit Courthouse Dogs Foundation.

Courthouse dogs such as Comet, typically working with prosecutors or victim advocates, often are used to comfort witnesses testifying in court or people, particularly alleged crime victims, during law-enforcement interviews.

“You get someone who doesn’t want to talk, is street hardened and wants no part of being in the building," says Brian Bendish, a prosecutor in Westchester County, N.Y., as Lewis, the 6-year-old Labrador retriever he lives and works with, looks on with puppy-dog eyes. “Then Lewis comes in and you can feel the change in their cooperation."

But some defense attorneys are arguing that courtrooms have gone to the dogs.

“A dog signals to a jury that an alleged victim is sympathetic, needy or vulnerable," says lawyer Jan Trasen, of Washington Appellate Project, a public-defender organization. “The accused person doesn’t get to sit there with props."

“I love dogs," adds Trasen, whose own mutt, Bear, was trained at a juvenile-detention center. “I just don’t think they belong in courtrooms."

How do pooches get summoned for courthouse duty? Experts look for dogs—typically black labs, golden retrievers or a cross—that are emotionally stable and social, even with people they don’t know, says Flora Baird of Canine Companions, a nonprofit that breeds, trains and places service dogs, in addition to those in the justice system.

Paw and order

Trained to follow more than 40 commands and not bark on the job, these canines are paired with handlers who work in criminal justice and manage a dog as part of their role.

For Jason Kramer, a prosecutor in Denver, the process was akin to doggy speed dating. His first match, a labrador-golden retriever named Rita, was a bust.

“She had me wrapped around her paw, and I wasn’t going to be a very good handler," says Kramer. His current partner is Rita’s brother Rylan, who is more receptive to his commands.

Some regions are more court-dog friendly than others, says O’Neill-Stephens, of the Courthouse Dogs Foundation. “Out West it’s much more acceptable," she says. “Along the East Coast, they see it as undignified."

Nine states have laws explicitly allowing specially trained dogs in courtrooms. In others, including Maine and New York, efforts to pass similar legislation have thus far failed.

“Some of my colleagues are concerned about fairness," says state Sen. Pam Helming, a Republican who sponsors New York’s bill. Helming had visited Juno, a courthouse dog in Ontario County, which is in her upstate district. “This isn’t scientific, but when Juno gave me some kisses, my blood pressure probably dropped a little bit," she says.

Kids are among the dogs’ biggest fans.

Victim advocate Shannon McFate, of the Denver district attorney’s office, asks children their favorite color before choosing neckwear for her office’s dog, Bodhi, from his 50-piece bow tie collection. Fawn Borden, in Arkansas, taught a dog named Roxy how to play Uno with those who come in for interviews.

Adults, too, appreciate a four-legged friend, although handlers learn to ask before bringing the canine variety. Once, Borden, who works with victims, took a dog along to an interview, but found the pup wasn’t welcome.

“The woman showed up with a bunny, who was her emotional support animal," she says.

Dog rules vary. In Arkansas, the law requires dogs to remain out of jurors’ sight. The stakes are high: If the canine pops out its head from the witness box, a judge could declare a mistrial, Borden says.

“We tell our clients, ‘Wear slip-on shoes, and you can use your foot to pet the dog,’" she says.

In some other states, judges instruct jurors not to let the dog’s presence impact their deliberations.

Bone of contention

Objections by defense lawyers have led to a body of appellate law around the country, giving new meaning to the saying “a dog of a case." Courts have largely ruled in favor of canines. When Pennsylvania’s highest court ruled in 2021 that trial judges have the discretion to allow witnesses to testify with dogs, the court noted one judge had taken several precautionary steps to prepare for the possibility that excited tail-wagging by a dog named Melody would make noise in the witness box.

Today some courtroom dogs are local celebrities, inspiring Instagram accounts, trading cards or even plush toy versions of themselves.

Dogs handlers face unique challenges. Kramer, the prosecutor in Denver, runs 15 minutes late because Rylan’s fans, from security guards to coffee vendors, stop him in the hallway. McFate, of the Denver district attorney’s office, is constantly battling Bodhi’s blond fur.

“I feel like if I don’t have a roller with me it’s a fireable offense," she says.

Write to Corinne Ramey at corinne.ramey@wsj.com

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