Courthouse therapy dogs now offered in Kent County

Posted at 5:16 PM, Oct 03, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-03 17:17:15-04

KENT COUNTY, Mich. -- Kent County is hopping on a nationwide trend, making therapy dogs available to young victims and vulnerable adults who need support in the courtroom.

Kent County judges and prosecutors tell FOX 17 that they are starting to make some successful strides with the program.

The program has already helped one child in the county, but Judge Katheleen Fenney and county prosecutor Chris Becker say they hope the courthouse therapy program will help many more children on the witness stand.

Dogs in a courtroom are not something you see every day, but it's an idea that has proven to help young victims all over the nation take the stand.

"Traditionally I think there has been that, 'oh my gosh' we're going to have animals in the courtroom and who wants to do that, but it has been done in other places and you're seeing the positive effects," Becker said.

Going to court can be stressful for anyone, but the county's Therapy Dog program's goal is to alleviate some of that stress, providing a welcoming distraction for young, vulnerable witnesses.

"Our idea is twofold. One the physiological results of that  [is] lowering the child's blood pressure, but also giving them something a little more to focus on so they're not just focusing on the bad things that have happened. They can also be petting a dog and having a nicer experience doing that," says Paula Nelson, West Michigan Therapy Dogs Vice President.

Teaming up with West Michigan Therapy Dogs, the pilot program offers courthouse dogs that can help witnesses meet with prosecutors, wait to testify and attend court. Judge Feeney says the support will make a difference in future testimony.

"It keeps them calm it helps them to focus and in a criminal case it helps them to recall facts more easily and give more accurate testimony and that's what we want," Feeney said.

A recent bill allowing dogs in the courtroom pushed the program along.

Several other Michigan courts have implemented courthouse dog programs and Feeney says she hopes to extend the program across Kent County to help as many young victims and vulnerable adults on the stand as they can.

"These child victims have already been traumatized significantly, and if we can do something small like have a dog there that they can pet just to kind of keep them calm. Or they can talk to the dog about what happened to them and it doesn't make coming to court more traumatizing for them, then that's fabulous," says Feeney.

There are currently 22 courthouse therapy dogs in two courthouses in Kent County. Once the pilot program is perfected the program will expand throughout the county.  If you'd like to request a therapy dog you can do so through the prosecutors or victims/witness office.