VOTING NOMINEE - Courthouse dogs - justice with compassion

Ellen O’Neill-Stephens

Founder Courthouse Dogs Foundation

Making the investigation and prosecution of crimes more humane 

The investigation and prosecution of crimes is an emotionally charged process. An illegal act can cause feelings of loss, emotional trauma, family break-ups and physical injury. The search for the truth may involve interrogations, endless court proceedings, the anxiety of recounting a stressful event in a courtroom full of strangers, and outcomes of incarceration or an empty sense of vindication.

Scientific research shows that many humans experience a sense of well-being in the close presence of a calm dog. Expertly trained assistance dogs, handled by professionals associated with the legal system can provide emotional support to people during legal proceedings and thereby make this process more humane.

These courthouse facility dogs should be graduates from assistance dog organisations that are accredited members of Assistance Dogs International to ensure that they do not create a public danger and are stable, well-behaved and unobtrusive in public. 

The inclusion of these dogs in the legal system can make these proceedings more cost efficient, reduce the number of trials, assist defendants in their recovery in treatment courts and leave people with a more positive association with the practice of criminal law. Most importantly the dog’s calming presence promotes justice with compassion.


 1. Can you briefly describe the innovation, in terms of the problem(s) it tries to solve and why is it necessary?

The process of investigating and prosecuting crimes can be emotionally stressful for everyone involved in the process. This negative psychological response can make people less able to engage in the fact finding process. An individual’s inability or reluctance to speak can interfere with the determination of guilt or innocence because a jury has less evidence to consider.

For example, the National Crime Victim Law Institute reports that external factors that influence a crime victim’s experience with the criminal justice system, which in turn may lead to increased (or decreased) mental and physical well-being, include: (1) the manner in which the victims are treated throughout the criminal justice process; and (2) the amount of control that the victims are given as well as the extent to which they are able to participate within the system. Victims who feel that they have been treated fairly and afforded their rights tend to experience less secondary victimiation, and they have greater respect for and satisfaction with the justice system.

There is overwhelming scientific evidence that appropriately bred and trained dogs can provide short and long term physical and mental calming effects on humans. Consequently their presence can improve victim satisfaction. 

Evidence of this is that many victims have reported that when a detective, a prosecutor or a judge is aware of a crime victim’s emotional stress and offers them a calm dog to reduce those feelings, they feel in more control over their emotions, are better able to participate in the legal proceedings and feel less traumatised by the process. 

2. What makes your innovation unique?

The inclusion of courthouse facility dogs in the investigation and prosecution of crimes is innovative because:

  • The negative emotional impact of crime on people has rarely been considered or accommodated during the pursuit of justice.
  • The idea that an expertly trained dog can successfully facilitate this process astounds many people. Learning more about the human and animal bond for this purpose can make people appreciate the value of animals and hopefully inspire them to treat them more humanely.
  • The current method of reducing stress for victims and witnesses of a child victim holding a comfort item or the presence of a victim advocate in the courtroom to reduce stress, can be more prejudical to the defendant and more distruptive to the proceedings than the presence of an unobstrusive dog used for this purpose.

Courthouse facility dogs should be available to any victim, witness or defendant who can demonstrate to the judge the need for the presence of dog to reduce emotional stress during legal proceedings. Reducing stress for witnesses should not just confined to victims of crimes.

3. What triggered the development of the innovation?

Ellen O’Neill-Stephens, the founder of the Courthouse Dog Foundation, was a deputy prosecuting attorney for 26 years in Seattle, Washington and is the mother of Sean, who is severely disabled by cerebral palsy. These two circumstances triggered the development of this innovation.

  • Ellen’s Job

During her years as a deputy prosecuting attorney Ellen witnessed a great deal of human suffering during the investigation and prosecution of crimes. She had to ask severely injured victims, family members who had lost loved ones, and young sexually abused children to testify in trials knowing that it could retraumatise them.

As the Drug Court Prosecutor she worked with homeless drug addicts living on the streets, pregnant mothers who could not stop using drugs at the expense of the health of their children and war veterans suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome. The road to recovery is a long one and most of these people lost their way.

The adversarial system often brings out the worst behaviour in the professionals who have to serve the public. Not only is there the expectation that they must “win”, but their vicarious trauma often makes them hardened and unsympathetic to the people they serve and to opposing counsel. In addition, criminal justice professionals who appear to be stressed by these experiences are regarded as “not tough enough to do the job” by their superiors so these feeling must be suppressed to ensure their ongoing employment.

  • Ellen’s Son

Although Sean cannot speak and relies upon people to meet all of his physical needs, he is a very social and happy person. When he graduated from high school, he no longer had the social contacts provided by the other students at his school. Ellen decided to obtain a service dog named Jeeter to be his companion. When she saw what a positive difference the presence that Jeeter had on Sean’s social interactions with strangers it occurred to her that service dogs could have a positive impact on people involved in the criminal justice system.

  • The development of the innovation

Ellen obtained permission from the juvenile drug court judge to bring Jeeter to Drug Court to help the teenagers in their recovery. He was a huge success and at that point Ellen convinced the elected prosecutor and Canine Companions for Independence to include a facility dog to assist traumatised people in the legal system. When Ellen saw the benefits of having a dog present at the courthouse, she decided to institutionalise this practice by educating legal professionals about this programme and promote best practices in this field. Ellen regards Sean and Jeeter as the inspiration for this work.

4. Which persons and organisations were involved in the development and what role did they play?

Ellen was the sole promoter of the use of courthouse dogs from 2003 until 2008. As interest in this field began to grow, Ellen was unable to continue to work full-time as a deputy prosecuting attorney and meet the demand of educating more people about the benefits of these dogs. When Ellen asked for help in developing a website, Celeste Walsen, DVM, offered to assist Ellen with this project. Within just a few weeks they realised that they were excellent partners in this venture and decided to work together. Celeste provides expert advice on incorporating a dog into an office setting and animal behavior and has business expertise and Ellen teaches legal professionals about how to incorporate facility dogs in the investigation and prosecution of crimes without creating legal issues.

Part of the Courthouse Dogs Foundation mission statement is to support non-profit assistance dog organisations that are members of Assistance Dogs International and to facilitate scientific research in this field.

The Seattle Police Department has supported the Foundation by producing a DVD which demonstrates the benefits of courthouse dogs working with legal professionals. These DVDs are provided free of charge. Celeste and Ellen are consultants for federal government agencies, the Office for Victims of Crimes and the Office for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Over the past five years the countless number of professionals they have assisted in programme development have become supporters of their work and added to the development and knowledge in this field. Detectives, victim advocates, forensic interviewers, prosecutors, probation officers, judges, treatment providers and therapists they have worked with, are eager to share their experiences with Ellen and Celeste in support of developing best practices. For a list of Courthouse Dogs Foundation conference presentations and trainings visit this page. Ellen and Celeste have also partnered with David Crenshaw PhD, a child psychologist, and James Ha, an animal behaviourist, to aid in program development. Ellen and Celeste assisted Dr. Crenshaw and a New York Senator in drafting legislation for the State of New York in support of the use of courthouse dogs assisting witnesses during trials. At the request of the Foundation, Dr. Ha has provided expertise in scientific research in this field to several graduate students interested in measuring the benefits of dogs assisting people in the legal field.

In 2013, Ellen partnered with the National Crime Victim Law Institute to write an Amicus Brief for the Washington State Supreme Court in support of facility dog Ellie assisting a frightened man with physical and mental disabilities when he testified in court. 

Many assistance dog organisations that are members of Assistance Dogs International have agreed to place facility dog to work in the criminal justice system. Assistance Dogs International has invited Celeste and Ellen to teach professional dog trainers about the legal issues associated with dogs working in this field this October so the trainers can select dogs with the best disposition to successfully assist people in this high stress environment.

Ellen and Celeste are also holding an international conference on Courthouse Dogs in Seattle, Washington on 8 November 2013.

5. What kind of resistance have you encountered and how have you overcome it?

The most resistance Celeste and Ellen have encountered is from judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors, court administrators and politicians who think that the presence of a courthouse dog will: 1) undermine the decorum of the court system and disrupt legal proceedings 2) be prejudical to the defendant if the dog assists crime victims and witnesses because the jury will think that these victims and witnesses have more credibility if they see a dog assisting them.

These concerns are usually overcome by educating these professionals by: 1) explaining that courthouse facility dogs have the same training as service dogs that assist disabled people and having our courthouse dog Molly B demonstrate her excellent behaviour and calm disposition 2) showing that these dogs can be almost invisible in the courtroom because they can often be concealed in the witness box.

6. How did you make the goals realistic and attainable, and when will quick wins be available?

After Canine Companions for Independence placed courthouse facility dog Ellie at the King County Prosecutor’s Office in 2004, Ellen began promoting this concept to other prosecutors’ offices, child advocacy centers, law enforcement organisations, treatment courts and assistance dog organisations.

The goal of demonstrating that courthouse facility dogs could calm people involved in the criminal justice system was attained almost immediately because crime victims, witnesses and defendants in treatment courts showed a positive response to the presence of the dog and reported their happiness in seeing the dog in this setting. They also expressed their appreciation of the effort made to make them feel more comfortable during these stressful proceedings and became more engaged in the criminal justice process because they looked forward to coming to court so they could spend time with the dog.

Educating legal professionals about how a facility dog could be incorporated into this process without creating public safety issues and legal problems made it more probable that they would give this innovative idea a try. Teaching legal professionals about how to avoid potential prejudice to the defendant as a result of the presence of a facility dog in the courtroom has resulted in two favorable appellate decisions regarding the use of the dog in this manner.

Celeste and Ellen gave two Courthouse Dog presentations at Assistance Dog International Conferences in the United States in 2009 and Canada 2010 about how this placement of facility dogs fit within their non-profit mission statements and could enhance their donor base. This increased the the placement of these highly trained dogs with professionals in the criminal justice system. Many assistance dog organisations now collaborate with the Courthouse Dogs Foundation to make this placement.

7. Will the innovation affect other organisations in the chain and if that is the case, how will it affect them?

This innovation has positively affected other organisations involved in the criminal justice chain. The professionals in these organisations have either supplied these dogs or incorporated them in their work.

  • Assistance Dog Organisations

The placement of a facility dog from an assistance dog organisation that is a member of Assistance Dogs International has resulted in a great deal of media coverage and financial support of these organisations. Assistance Dog International standards were included in briefs presented to the Washington State Supreme Court which showcases the need for assistance dog standards throughout the world.

  • Prison Assistance Dog Training Programs

There are now many prisons throughout the world that teach inmates to raise and train assistance dogs to assist people in need. Now some of these inmates are training assistance dogs to help others in the criminal justice system. Ellen and Celeste visited one such programme in Indiana and learned that many of the women inmates had been victims of child sexual abuse or domestic violence and they were very gratified to place a dog to help crime victims or defendants involved in legal proceedings. This is a story that Ellen wrote about their meeting with these women. 

  • Law Enforcement Organisations

If a courthouse dog is present when a detective is interviewing children about sex assault or abuse, many children can better describe what happened in more detail. This more comprehensive information can assist the police in investigating the crime which could enable them to obtain more evidence about what occurred.

  • Medical Centres

Medical professionals have found that when a courthouse dog accompanies a child into a room for a medical exam, the amount of time required to conduct the exam is greatly reduced.

  • Child Advocacy Centers

A child’s brain development can be negatively impacted by emotional trauma. Many child therapists working in child advocacy centers find that having the dog involved in therapy sessions helps build trust between the child and the therapist and which helps facilitate the recovery process. Court appointed Special Advocates (CASA) and Victim Advocate Programmes. Child or victim advocacy programs have also begun to include courthouse facility dogs in their practice with great success. Visit the websites for Chaves County CASA  and the Community Voices for more information about their courthouse dog programmes.

  • Restorative Justice Courts

In York County Pennsylvania probation officers recently acquired a courthouse dog to provide emotional support to defendants in Veterans, Mental Health, Driving under the Influence and Drug Courts while they undergo treatment, find employment and housing, and receive mental health treatment. 

8. How was the development funded and what were reasons for the financing organisation? 

Celeste and Ellen made a commitment to promote the use of courthouse dogs in order to reduce human suffering that results the investigation and prosecution of crimes. They have funded the development of the Courthouse Dog Foundation from their personal funds and from their consultation fees. The Foundation became a Washington State non-profit organisation and applied for 501 (c) (3) status with the US federal government in 2012. It is unlikely the Foundation will attain federal non-profit status before 2014. The Foundation has only received approximately $1500.00 in donations from members of the public. The largest donation of $701.00 was provided by women inmates from a state prison in Arizona. As this concept grows the Foundation will need funding from outside forces to meet the demand for their services.

9. Can you name 3 to 5 characteristics of the innovation that are most essential to make it work?

The essential characteristics that will ensure the success of this innovation are:

  • The determination to overcome the obstacles that would prevent this programme from being implemented.
  • The collaboration with all the stakeholders to ensure that this is a successful programme that benefits everybody in need of emotional support during stressful legal proceedings.
  • A commitment to strive for and maintain best practices in this field so this practice remains a benefit to the justice process.

10. How do you measure whether it is a successful innovation?

Every organisation that has implemented this programme reports very positive client satisfaction. The professionals that handle the dogs also report greater job satisfaction and a reduction of vicarious trauma from working in this field.

The best measurement of the success of this programme is the hundreds of professionals and organisations that rely upon the Courthouse Dogs Foundation website for information and contact the Foundation for assistance in implementing this type of programme.

Two appellate courts have reviewed if the presence of the dog assisting a crime victim has been prejudicial to the defendant and determined that it was not.

However, one challenge to measuring if this is a successful innovation through scientific research is the need to maintain the privacy of child crime victims involved in this process. It is also important that the scientific research does not affect the outcome of the legal process which can require waiting until the appellate process is concluded. Nevertheless, these obstacles can be overcome.

11. How many people or organisations benefit from this innovation now?

There are 44 courthouse dogs working in 19 states in the United States. These dogs have positive contact with hundreds of people a month while working in this environment. 

12. How many people or organisations could potentially benefit your innovation now and in the future? Can or will the innovation be used internationally and how do you overcome cultural differences?

The number of people and organisations that could potentially benefit from this innovation is almost limitless provided there are enough facility dogs available for this purpose. It takes approximately two years to train a facility dog and there are a relatively small number of dogs that have the temperament to enjoy and perform this work because until now there was not a big demand for this type of dog.

The use of courthouse dogs has worldwide application. The Courthouse Dog Foundation has already assisted in the implementation of this program in Chile and Canada

Read the magazine article Courthouse Dogs Go South written by Ellen about the expansion of courthouse dogs to Chile

It has been reported that many people who are frightened of dogs have been able to overcome their fear after meeting these dogs. Although some cultures prohibit contact with dogs, scientific research has shown that an animal’s anxiety-reducing effect applied to people with different attitudes towards animals and was not restricted to animal lovers. Shiloh, S., Sorek, G., & Terkel, J. (2003). Reduction of state-anxiety by petting animals in a controlled laboratory experiment. Anxiety, Stress, and Coping, 16, 387 – 395.

13. Can you quantify the financial benefits?

Conducting a criminal trial is very costly. Incorporating a facility dog in the investigation and prosecution of crimes can result in tremendous financial savings to taxpayers. For example, if a very young child can better describe a traumatic event due to the presence of the dog, defense counsel may reconsider taking a case to trial and instead advise a defendant to enter a guilty plea to the offense. A guilty plea proceeding is very inexpensive compared to a jury trial. In addition, a guilty plea means that there will be no financial costs associated with appealing the outcome of a trial. A non-economic benefit is that a guilty plea reduces potential emotional trauma to crime victims and witnesses because they don’t have to testify in court knowing that their veracity will be challenged.

14. Is the innovation financially viable and sustainable and if yes, how? 

Criminal justice organisations that choose to implement a courthouse dog programme will find it a worthwhile investment. Assistance dog organisations provide these facility dogs (valued at approximately $20,000 at the time of their placement) at comparatively little cost. This is because of the many generous donations from individuals, corporations, and grant makers who support assistance dog organisations. These organisations also train the professionals that handle the dog. Liability insurance can be easily obtained because of the dog’s extensive training and the certification that the dog should not pose a safety hazard. The annual expense of keeping the dog is the equivalent to a pet dog. A facility dog’s career can last for approximately eight years and during that time the dog can assist thousands of people through legal proceedings.

15. Did you receive any recognition?

The Office of the King County Prosecuting Attorney in Seattle, Washington presented an award for Innovation to Ellen for 2003-2004.

In 2009 the video “Dogs in the Courthouse” won a contest sponsored by the Washington State Bar Association. The public and judges voted that this video best represented “Justice for All, A Northwest Perspective”. The video can be seen on the internet

Oprah Magazine named Ellen a “Local Hero” in January 2013.

There have been numerous magazine, newspaper articles, and radio and television stories written about the work that Celeste and Ellen have done on behalf of the Courthouse Foundation. These are links to this recognition. 

16. What lessons did you learn along the way that could be useful to others?

The implementation of a courthouse dog programme must be a collaborative effort in order to succeed.

An abiding belief in an idea fuels the effort of making it a reality.

The mission of promoting justice with compassion with the assistance of courthouse dogs is a concept that appeals to many people from all walks of life with different political and religious backgrounds. It is so rewarding to have this bond as a way to bring people together.

Top 3 Finalist of Successful Innovations 2013

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