Anyone who knows me is very aware of the close bonds (aka “obsession”) I have with my two dogs, Dexter and Luca. When I first meet someone, it is virtually impossible to avoid their introduction in our conversation. The dog whisperer, Cesar Millan, would shake his head at me and wag his finger in a disapproving manner.
Milan has often said Americans humanize dogs to a point that is detrimental to the dogs’ well-being. His logic: dogs are animals and require three things in a particular order — exercise, discipline and affection (but only after the first two are accomplished). While I understand his methodology, I find myself at odds with it often.
Back in March, NPR and the New York Times covered Yale Law School’s three-day trial period with Monty, a certified therapy dog offered to students for 30-minute sessions at the law library. Using a dog for stress relief does not surprise me in the least. I, for one, would definitely have felt less anxious answering a cold call in my property class if my feet were curled around Dexter’s or Luca’s warm and fuzzy bodies. When I had a bad day at work or school, the first “person” I would turn to was Dexter or Luca (not in any particular order).
Yale’s program is not the first to employ dogs in the practice of stress reduction or rehabilitation. Numerous programs across the country take advantage of dogs for therapy in nursing homes, mental institutions, and prisons. The International Association of Assistance Dog Partners provides extensive information as to what assistance dogs can provide for humans inflicted with debilitating mental or even physical disabilities. But a fairly new scenario involving a dog as emotional support has sparked a legal debate.
Public defenders representing a New York man convicted of raping his teenage daughter are appealing the conviction because Rosie, a golden retriever therapy dog, accompanied the girl on the witness stand. The lawyers argue dogs may unfairly sway jurors with their “cuteness” and the natural empathy they attract.
Courts have allowed such trained dogs in front of juries in a number of states, including Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho and Indiana. Prosecutors note that the use of dogs like Rosie is a growing trial trend. For them, the dog means the difference between a conviction and an acquittal because, otherwise, the victim may not be able to testify. (Editor’s note: Check out our story about Baltimore City prosecutors using a dog to help sexually-abused children)
But jurors are “likely to conclude that the dog is helping victims expose the truth,” one defense lawyer told The New York Times. “Every time she stroked the dog, it sent an unconscious message to the jury that she was under stress because she was telling the truth.”
That should demonstrate the fairness, not the prejudice, involved with a dog like Rosie who is providing emotional assistance. Rosie is capable of assisting anyone testify, whether it is a child victim or a defendant standing trial for murder. The situation would be the same for any testifying witness on the prosecution or defense side.
Finally, the defense lawyers said there was no way to cross-examine a dog. Even if it was possible, why would they need to? Despite Rosie’s presence with the victim in the witness box, the 15-year old girl was still the person testifying in the case. They lawyers should incur no less prejudice cross-examining a 15-year old rape victim with or without Rosie by her side.
What do you think? Did Rosie’s presence, in the words of the public defender’s office, “infect the trial with such unfairness that it constituted a violation of their client’s constitutional rights”? Are judges across the country all amiss in allowing official courthouse dogs into their courtroom?