Facility Dogs: An Innovation in Victim/Witness Support
What is a Facility Dog? A facility dog is not a service dog, as it does not assist a person with a disability, nor does it have public access, but it is a dog with a special purpose. At a child advocacy center, a facility dog supports the process of interviewing a child victim and documenting any evidence of child abuse. The presence of a quiet, gentle, specially trained dog offers a source of comfort to a child while she or he is sharing a very traumatic experience with a perfect stranger. During this stressful, emotional interview a facility dog enables the child to focus on something other than the details of their abuse.
As a graduate from an accredited service or assistance dog organization, such as Canine Companions for Independence or Champ Assistance Dogs, the dog comes to the child advocacy center after approximately two years of training. Generally the dog’s handler – who has also been specially trained – is an employee of the organization who has adopted the dog as his or her own.
In more and more jurisdictions, facility dogs are being admitted into the Courtroom in order to provide a calming influence on children during stressful legal proceedings. As “legally neutral companions” for the child witness during the investigation and prosecution of crimes, these dogs help the most vulnerable witnesses feel willing and able to describe what happened.
The Association of Prosecuting Attorneys supports the use of facility dogs as “a model practice for providing quiet companionship to vulnerable individuals during the investigation and prosecution of crimes and other stressful legal proceedings.” They believe that the use of professionally trained dogs in the courthouse can make a substantial difference in the work done by criminal justice system and the people that they serve. They recommend that the facility dog graduate from an assistance dog organization that is a member of Assistance Dogs International and have a handler who has been trained by the assistance dog organization and who has professional training and experience in the legal system, such as a victim advocate, investigator, or forensic interviewer.
Carefully bred and expertly trained by Canine Companions for Independence, Manny, a two-year-old, Black Labrador Retriever, joined the Baltimore Child Abuse Center (BCAC) team in 2017. According to his handler, Manny offers a dose of calm, gentle, unconditional love for children facing the challenge of discussing trauma. Children returning to BCAC for appointments often seek Manny out first. “His sweet demeanor, kind face and attentive manner have truly transformed our client relationships. We find that while Manny himself cannot talk (except of course when asked to “speak!”), he opens the door to conversation constantly.”
In his downtime, Manny loves to retrieve tennis balls. “And, if you’re down on the floor with him playing, he just might back into your lap and take a seat!”
For child advocacy centers interested in adopting this innovation method of supporting child victims, the Western Regional Child Advocacy Center and the Courthouse Dogs Foundation has created a “best practice” manual to help CACs incorporate a facility dog in a manner that is safe, effective, and meets the needs of the child, family, professionals and the dog.