Hello, reddit! We are Ellen O’Neill-Stephens and Celeste Walsen, the founders of the Courthouse Dogs Foundation. We are a small nonprofit organization that teaches professionals working in the legal field (typically prosecutors, victims’ advocates, child advocacy centers, judges, and investigators) about how to utilize assistance dogs in the justice system. Since 2004, we have facilitated the placement of over 80 facility dogs with various legal professionals across the country. We teach and travel with our own facility dog, Molly B.

These assistance dogs are used to aid victims of violent crimes and abuse, with a special focus on supporting children. The dogs accompany these children in interviews with forensic investigators, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and testimony in court. They typically stay quietly next to the witness (or at their feet in court) while they talk about their experience, and have been shown to greatly alleviate the stress that comes with disclosing abuse and discussing traumatic experiences. For some children, this helps make the difference between being able to testify in court and completely shutting down. The Courthouse Dogs Foundation doesn’t directly train the dogs- instead, we teach people how to use them responsibly and effectively.

Also, a little bit of background about us: Ellen O’Neill-Stephens worked as a prosecutor in King County, Washington for over 20 years before retiring to found the nonprofit with Celeste Walsen, DVM. Ellen was one of the first people to use an assistance dog to work in the legal system when in 2003, she began bringing a service dog in to juvenile court. Since 2012, both Ellen and Celeste have been working full time for Courthouse Dogs Foundation.

We use a special kind of assistance dog called a facility dog. This is a dog who graduates from an assistance dog school that is accredited by Assistance Dogs International, which oversees the organizations that train dogs to become assistance dogs, including service animals such as guide dogs and hearing dogs. However, unlike service dogs, a facility dog is used by a professional to aid many different people instead of just one person. They are used in places like a special education classroom, a therapist’s office, and now, at courtrooms and interviews with crime investigators. These animals are not just pets- they have two years of intensive training, and are highly reliable in challenging conditions. These animals are different from pet therapy dogs, which have lower standards of training and varying temperaments which may not be appropriate for being in a high-stress environment.

If you would like to support us, you can donate to our cause at the following link: http://courthousedogs.com/donate.html

We’re ready for your questions, reddit! We’ll be answering with our intern, Ryan, until about 7:00pm Eastern Standard Time. We’ll check back in tomorrow morning to catch any other questions!

Here is our proof.


Thanks for all of your questions, reddit! We'll come back tomorrow morning to answer any last questions, so feel free to leave some for us in the morning!

Comments: 38 • Responses: 17  • Date: 

dangerouslydave6 karma

Who takes care of the dogs when they're not working?

Where does the funding come from to pay for the dogs and their care?

Courthouse_Dogs6 karma

Each courthouse facility dog has a primary handler with whom they live full-time. This is typically a victim advocate, detective, forensic interviewer, guardian ad litem, or a deputy prosecuting attorney. They go to work with their handler every day, and when they're off-duty, they have the same great life as a pet dog.

Some assistance dog organizations place these dogs, valued at about $40,000, free of charge or at very low cost (typically around $5000). These schools also provide training to the handlers free of charge. The rest of the expenses can be covered by nonprofit organizations, the primary handler, or funds made available by law enforcement organizations. Usually those funds are moneys seized from narcotics traffickers. Many veterinarians and pet stores provide their services/products to these dogs free of charge.

chooter4 karma

What breed(s) work best for your program?

Courthouse_Dogs7 karma

Most courthouse facility dogs around the US are Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, or a cross of these two breeds. Assistance Dog schools have found that these dogs have the best temperament to do this work, and people usually see these dogs as friendly. A well-bred retriever is quiet and obedient, and is not aggressive at all. One thing that is important in the courthouse is that these dogs look very different from a police canine dog. Since K9 units usually use German shepherds or Belgian Malinois, those would be bad breeds to choose.

Rupert624 karma

What is one of your favorite success stories?

Courthouse_Dogs17 karma

This is one of Ellen's favorite success stories that shows how one of these dogs can make a difference:

A five-year-old boy saw his mother severely beaten by her boyfriend. In addition to that, the boyfriend poured gasoline on his mother and him and threatened to set them on fire. The little boy made the 911 call, and he and his mother were soon placed in a shelter for their own protection. However, the little boy was so traumatized by this, that he stopped talking altogether. When pressed, he would put his hand down his throat as if he were trying to vomit. He was brought into the King County Prosecutor's office to speak with an interviewer about what happened. After his mother explained to the interviewer that her son was unlikely to speak, the interviewer asked the mother if her son liked dogs. She said that he loved dogs. So, he meet a courthouse facility dog named Ellie, and the two of them played together before the interview began. Once they began the interview, Ellie snuggled beside him and he was able to tell the interviewer what happened for the first time. When the boy would struggle for words, she would snuggle in closer. At one point after this happened, he told the interviewer, "see, Ellie loves me." Because she was there to provide this comfort, he was able to finish the interview, and before they left the room, he kissed her.

buttboater4 karma

Would you rather fight one courthouse-sized dog or a hundred dog-sized courthouses?

Courthouse_Dogs3 karma

If we can use our army of facility dogs, we'd have to take on the hundred dog-sized courthouses. Their training has to count for something!

orangejulius3 karma

How did you get this idea?

Any success stories that stand out to you that you could share?

Courthouse_Dogs6 karma

This is from Ellen O'Neill-Stephens:

While I was working as a deputy prosecuting attorney in Seattle, Washington, I saw how stressful it was for victims and witnesses to testify in trials. It seemed like there had to be a better way to seek the truth without causing emotional harm to people. This idea occurred to me when my son, who is disabled, got a service dog named Jeeter. When I saw how comforting this dog was for him, and everyone else that encountered this dog, I realized that this type of dog could help people through the legal process. There was one day a week when Jeeter couldn't be with my son, so I asked the juvenile drug court judge if Jeeter could come to court and help the teenagers in their drug recovery (that was where I currently posted). The judge and the drug court team agreed that Jeeter's presence would be good for these teenagers. His presence was such a success that other prosecutors in my office asked if Jeeter could help children that had been sexually assaulted. We started bringing him to those cases too, and it made an incredible difference.

Pretty soon, the demand for Jeeter grew, and because he was only working one day a week, the King County Prosecutors Office applied for a facility dog from Canine Companions for Independence. This dog's name is Ellie, and she has been working in the prosecutor's office since 2004 with great success.

I'm also including a link to a news article that was written about Jeeter when he helped 7-year-old twin sisters testify after they had been abused. I'm also giving you the link to another article written about how we got started!

IKingJeremy3 karma

What were some of the biggest obstacles to overcome in getting this foundation off the ground?

Courthouse_Dogs6 karma

Judges have usually only met pet dogs, and based on those experiences, they are very reluctant to have a dog in the courtroom. They need to maintain courtroom decorum and protect the rights of the defendant. After they meet a professionally trained courthouse facility dog, they can see that having a quiet non-reactive dog in the courtroom would be acceptable. For instance, our dogs don't bark or growl unless specifically commanded to do so, and can lie quietly for very long periods of time (about 2 hours without needing a break). You can read more about the training standards on Assistance Dogs International's website- they set all of the standards for facility dogs. That's one about why the concept was hard to get off the ground.

Judges also worry that the dog will make one witness look more appealing to the jury. We've helped developed protocols that minimize this problem- for instance, usually the jury is dismissed from the courtroom until the witness and the dog are settled on the witness stand, and then the jury is brought back in. Often, in a jury trial, the jury never actually sees the dog with the witness because they dog is shielded by the witness stand. The witnesses are also instructed not to bend down or directly interact with the dog during testimony. Until we developed solutions for those, that was a roadblock for us.

A less direct but very real obstacle for us has also been finding the funding to provide training around the united states. We try to offer trainings to ensure that agencies and courts are using best practices with courthouse facility dogs, but sometimes funding can be a limiting factor.

GiantMudcrab3 karma

Oh, I shared an article about your organization last week on /r/uplifting news! It was about the legislation in Illinois that allows these dogs to be used for children and adults who are developmentally disabled. I have a few questions about that:

How involved were you in with that legislation?

Do you have another "target" state in mind?

Why doesn't Washington have a law like this (to the best of my knowledge) when that's the state you started your program in?

Thanks for doing an AMA!

Courthouse_Dogs2 karma

We actually assisted with the drafting of that legislation. We also arranged for an assistance dog from Support Dogs Incorporated in Missouri to attend one of the hearings before the Illinois senate (I think his name was Mitchell, and he was later placed with the Lake County state's attorney in Illinois). Mitchell's presence there did a great deal to persuade the senators to vote in favor of the legislation- it passed unanimously. Our role in drafting legislation often involves consulting on best practices for the use of the dogs.

We're currently trying to work with Tennessee, where there are currently four courthouse dogs. We've also already helped Arkansas through the same process- they were the first state to implement this type of legislation in support of facility dogs providing this service.

Washington doesn't have this law because there is now case law that explicitly permits a facility dog to provide its assistance to vulnerable people under certain circumstances that minimize any potential prejudice to the defendant. So, in a sense, the work is already done there.

lamic3 karma

Which states' courtrooms have you all used these facility dogs in? I would imagine some parts of the country may not be as receptive as others - is this the case?

Courthouse_Dogs2 karma

We currently have courthouse facility dogs placed in 28 states across the country. A list with each dog placement can be found on our website, here.

However, their roles and duties vary from state to state. In a trial with a jury, the use of a facility dog in the courtroom must always be approved by a judge. This has happened in many of the 28 states.

There are appellate decisions that support the use of facility dogs in four states: California, New York, Washington, and Connecticut.

Two states have laws that specifically allow courthouse facility dogs to accompany child witnesses under certain circumstances: Illinois and Arkansas.

All of these dogs are still used to support crime victims and witnesses outside the courtroom.

Theawesome673 karma

Out of all the dogs you have worked with, which one is/was your favorite to work with?

Courthouse_Dogs3 karma

Ellen's all-time favorite was Jeeter. She says, "although I love our current courthouse dog Molly, my son's service dog Jeeter was the best dog that I ever worked with. He was born an old soul, and was extremely loving towards everyone. Initially, the king county prosecuting attorney who grew up on a farm was very resistant to the idea of acquiring a facility dog for his office. But it only took Jeeter leaning against him while he sat and listened to me to convince the prosecutor to take a chance on what initially appeared to be a crazy idea.

But for Jeeter, I would never have thought of this. He leaves an incredible legacy. When he could no longer walk anymore at the age of ten, it was much easier to let him go knowing that he had such an impact on the world. On our website, I dedicate my work to my son Sean, and Jeeter.

Celeste says, "The best courthouse facility dog I've ever worked with is Molly B, our current dog. Molly was trained by Canine Companions for Independence. She is a black lab/golden retriever cross, and she always does what we want her to do. She's loving and sweet, and is almost universally loved. Her one bad habit (because everybody has one!) is flipping onto her back in front of crowds to get a big laugh. Molly travels with us everywhere and is the best ambassador we have for the use of courthouse facility dogs.

marymae90403 karma

First let me say that this is a brilliant concept providing an invaluable service. I have several questions: 1) is Missouri a participating state, 2) does a participating state express interest in Courthouse Dogs and then a qualified handler within that state is identified and matched with a dog OR do qualified handlers and trained dogs travel between states, 3) do children become attached to their assistance dog and, if so, is the child able to stay in touch with the canine friend when services are no longer needed, 4) is it possible to train shelter dogs (or shelter puppies) to be Courthouse Dogs, 5) how do you market to those who would benefit from this service and, 6) do you personally meet and place each dog or do the training facilities make those recommendations and work with the end-users? Thanks for your time. Hope to someday see Courthouse Dogs in every state.

Courthouse_Dogs3 karma

Thank you for the support, we're excited to be doing what we can!

To answer your questions:

  1. There is one courthouse facility dog working in the state of Missouri right now. Blue works at the Ozark Foothills Child Advocacy Center. And the Wentzville Child Advocacy Center will soon have their own dog working, too.

  2. Each courthouse facility dog works for a specific agency- a prosecutor's office, a child advocacy center, a law enforcement agency, or a sexual assault resource center. The handler of the dog is always an employee of the agency, and the dog comes to work with their handler. We usually get requests for assistance directly from one of these agencies, and they identify the potential handler themselves. The handlers do not regularly travel with their courthouse facility dogs to provide services, at least not under normal circumstances.

  3. We hear this question a lot! Surprisingly enough, children readily accept that the courthouse facility dog "lives" at the child advocacy center or at the prosecutor's office, and they are always happy to visit with the dog there (because they see it as the dog's home). That's one of the reason's the dog is so useful to the child- it makes the agency/office seem more like a home and less like a scary place. The child can always come back to visit the dog, even after they have finished using services from whatever agency is handling them.

  4. Courthouse facility dogs come from specially-bred populations of dogs that have been developed for decades for this type of work. They are bred specifically to be an assistance dog, and they are handled from birth in such a way to develop their resilience to stress. Extensive socialization and training from an early age creates a dog that is happy and comfortable even in a high-stress environment. The breeding program helps ensure that they will have the proper temperament to keep the dog happy.

  5. We maintain and extensive website at courthousedogs.org, we speak at conferences and workshops around the country, and we always answer our cellphones and email! All of those can be found here. The handlers themselves typically make the dogs available as a standard protocol when interacting with their clients.

  6. The accredited assistance dogs schools choose the perfect dog for each handler, and then provide extensive training for the handler to ensure they've got the right match. We usually meet the dogs when we come on-site to train the handlers, local courthouse staff, judges, and attorneys how to best utilize their courthouse facility dog.

marymae90401 karma

Thanks for all this great information. I'm fascinated and in awe of your program --- just wish shelter puppies (labs, goldens, even pibbles) were considered for training. I'm not a fan of breeders - sorry. Full disclosure: I work in dog rescue in the St. Louis area. ;) Can Blue accompany a child into a courtroom if need be? Can Blue work in St. Louis City? And just so I'm understanding correctly, a handler candidate in a participating state expresses a willingness and then a trained dog (and training for the handler) is provided, correct?

Courthouse_Dogs2 karma

Thank you for your questions!

Blue works Doniphan, Missouri, and we don't currently have any courthouse facility dogs working in the St. Louis area. Whether or not he could come to work there would depend on the schedule and availability of his handler, but there is nothing that would immediately prohibit him being used there in a special case.

And you are correct! A handler candidate, which is outlined in our best practices, fills out an application for the dog, and then the dog is provided along with the training. The handler typically must be a professional working in the legal system, and should get permission from their agency to ensure the dog will be allowed on the venue. Usually the dogs are donated or heavily discounted, and the training for the handler is almost always completely free.

LDM953 karma

What is your favourite breed?

Courthouse_Dogs4 karma

In our experience, judges and attorneys often prefer black labs. That way, everybody in the courtroom is wearing their formal black attire.

In actuality, yellow labs and golden retrievers do just as well! (One interesting fact is- there is actually no such thing as a hypoallergenic breed of dog!)

As far as pet dogs go, Ellen has a soft spot for Corgis, Celeste loves Shelties and Rottweilers, and their intern Ryan currently has his hands full with two Cavalier King Charles Spaniels.

Rupert623 karma

What do judges think about these dogs helping a witness testify during a trial?

Courthouse_Dogs4 karma

Judges need to be concerned that the presence of the dog assisting a witness testifying on behalf of the state will unfairly prejudice the defendant. Defense attorneys are concerned that because most people like dogs, they may feel more sympathy towards the state witness or believe that they may be more credible witnesses because of the dog. However, steps can be taken to prevent the jury from seeing the dog. This is done by having the witness and the dog placed in the witness box outside the presence of the jury. Most witness boxes completely conceal a dog lying down at the witness's feet. The judge should tell the jury that a dog is present in the witness box, the purpose of the dog, and also instruct them not to let the presence of the dog impact their jury deliberations in any way. When these measures are explained, most judges are satisfied and have allowed facility dogs to assist testifying witnesses.

evil_ferby2 karma

Thanks for doing an AMA! Could you talk a little bit more about what the dogs actually do?

Courthouse_Dogs4 karma

A courthouse facility dog provides some quiet companionship for crime victims and witnesses, especially children. During an investigative interview, the dog sits with its head against or on the witness's lap. In the courtroom, the dog lies quietly at the witness's feet, usually hidden by the wall of the witness box. The dog helps the person feel calm enough to actually tell their story to a detective, or to a jury in court. Having a quiet friendly dog leaning on you while you are talking makes it easier for you to keep talking about difficult subjects.

ijustlovecatssomuch2 karma

Hello, thank you so much for doing the AMA. Your work is incredibly inspiring. I apologise if my question isn't entirely relevant. I am an Australian veterinarian, and I was wondering, how does one become an intern with your foundation? Thanks again.

Courthouse_Dogs1 karma

Thanks for your support! You are welcome to send an email to Celeste Walsen to speak with her directly about that at [email protected].

MasterPadfoot1 karma

Is this the same organization that was in an Upworthy article recently? Where do these dogs come from?

Courthouse_Dogs1 karma

Yes, we are the same organization!

All of the courthouse facility dogs in the United States are graduates from accredited assistance dogs schools. You can find a full list of these on the website of Assistance Dogs International. The dogs themselves typically come from special breeding programs and are trained for two years before they're placed somewhere.

skydemons1 karma

So many people involved in the criminal justice system - defendants and victims/plaintiffs alike - have suffered trauma and experience stress during legal proceedings. How does your organization promote access to specialized facility dogs for whomever can benefit from them, regardless of what side of the law they're on?

Courthouse_Dogs3 karma

We believe that the dogs should be available to anyone who would find difficulty in participating in legal proceedings because doing so would cause them emotional distress. We don't think their use should be limited to just crime victims- in our presentations at conferences, trainings, and on our website, we advocate for their use for anyone who can demonstrate the need for this accommodation. At our conference last year, one of our speakers was a probation officer who used a courthouse facility dog to help defendants in Drug Court, Mental Health Court, and Veteran's Court so that they had a greater chance at succeeding in their recoveries.