Local members of Therapy Dogs Inc. want their day in court.
They want traumatized victims and witnesses of violent crimes to have a comforting dog present when they testify under the stress of cross-examination, explained Diane Mancinelli of Nevada City.
A year ago, “We took our dogs to court and introduced them to the judges,” said Ann Rubenstein of Chicago Park.
“All the dogs passed,” said Rubenstein, referring to the dogs’ obedient and calm demeanor as they were put through their paces on a day when court was not in session. A semi-retired attorney, Rubenstein and her 2-year-old smooth collie, McDuff, are among the 30-plus TDInc teams currently volunteering in Nevada County.
A judge even rolled around on the floor with one of the dogs, laughed Mancinelli, who is one of three TDInc tester/observers in the county who qualifies dogs and their owners — after a rigorous assessment — as registered TDInc teams.
Although the judges were impressed, they stopped short of the blanket endorsement the group had been hoping for. For legal and ethical reasons, the judges felt it would be inappropriate to take a stand because some defense attorneys might argue that the court had a pre-trial bias, Mancinelli and Rubenstein said.
That certainly does not mean therapy dogs are barred from court. It just means that judges will decide on a case-by-case basis, explained Nevada County District Attorney Clifford Newell.
“We’re absolutely open to it,” Newell said. “If you’re interested in justice, you want the victim/witness to be as comfortable and at ease as possible.”
Old program, new direction
Therapy dogs have a long and honored history of bringing comfort and love to patients in hospitals and hospices, residents of day care and assisted living facilities and kids in all kinds of situations. However, it’s only been in the past two or three years that therapy dogs have been increasingly — and successfully — used in court, said Billie Smith, executive director of TDInc in Cheyenne, Wyo.
“It’s been very beneficial for the kids,” she said. Children are especially vulnerable to the rigors of trial court testimony, she explained.
In California, Sacramento and San Diego counties have adopted official policies on the use of therapy dogs, Newell said.
“I think it’s a very valuable program,” he added.
There was one case some months ago where a young, traumatized girl was scheduled to testify. Given a choice of therapy dogs, she bonded with a Chihuahua. As it turned out, however, the case was resolved without going to trial, according to Mancinelli.
Nevertheless, Newell said he is open to bring in a therapy dog if the circumstances warrant.
“I want to have the right victim the first time,” he stipulated, because it would be a precedent-setting event. “We just haven’t had the right opportunity yet.”
Therapy Dogs Inc.
TDInc is a nonprofit organization that has 13,000 members with 15,000 dogs in the United States, Puerto Rico and Canada, Smith said.
Ever since its establishment in 1990, TDInc has required therapy teams (dog and owner) to pass a closely supervised series of tests and on-site observations.
The dog must prove to be obedient, calm, friendly with people and at ease around other dogs, among other requirements.
Additionally, they must be medically cleared by a veterinarian annually.
Meanwhile, owners must maintain a yearly membership and adhere to a strict set of rules, regulations and ethics. Membership includes a $5 million liability insurance policy.
Free to all
In a show of support for their dogs’ day in court, five volunteer TDInc teams gathered Wednesday at Quail Ridge Senior Living in Grass Valley, where they visit residents regularly.
They are Rubenstein with McDuff, Penny Roderick of Nevada City with Labrador retriever Maggie, Katherine Harrison of Colfax with Great Dane Lily, Kimmer Burgess of Grass Valley with black Labrador Garen and Quail Ridge marketing director Kristen Jenkins with Labrador retriever Kira.
All are committed to offering their services — entirely free — to any victim or witness of any age who needs a little canine reassurance.
As part of her campaign to win support for dogs in court, Mancinelli approached the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Coalition, where she is a volunteer.
“She’s brought it to us,” confirmed Sheri Meckler, DVSAC program specialist and volunteer coordinator. “We said, ‘Go for it!’”
Tom Durkin is a freelance writer/photographer in Nevada City. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.