Kiley arrives at the courthouse on Monday morning, wearing her blue vest and ready to start the work week. All eyes are on her as she breezes through the lobby and strides onto an elevator. She arrives at her office on the ninth floor and it’s time to go to work. Kiley has a full day of court appearances and pre-trial interviews – she’s a trained courthouse dog.
Kiley is one of several dogs across the region that provides support for victims and witnesses through the Courthouse Dogs program. Ellen O’Neill-Stephens, former King County deputy prosecutor, founded the program in 2004. Today, courthouse dogs are serving in many prosecutors’ offices and child advocacy centers across the country, providing silent comfort. Retelling the details of a crime can be almost as traumatic for a victim as the actual crime was. Some victims, especially children, are too shy to speak to another person about what happened to them. They feel comfortable when petting Kiley and are more likely to talk. Without the comfort of having a dog like Kiley present, some victims and witnesses might not have otherwise told their story. Kiley’s stable and calming presence puts a person at ease when a human can’t.
Courthouse dogs require special training, and the process begins at birth. The dogs, golden or Labrador retrievers, are specially bred and selected. During the first year of their lives, they are cared for by “puppy-raisers,” who are carefully selected by training groups such as Canine Companions for Independence (CCI). Then it’s off to school, where the dogs learn basic commands. After a few months, the dogs move on to advanced commands, such as “pull” and “light-switch.” The dogs that pass the advanced training continue on to the team training session with their new handler. Graduates of the program are ready to go to work at the courthouse.
Kiley, the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office’s victim and witness support dog, and her handler, Michelle Walker, graduated from CCI training in 2012.
“A few years ago, Heidi Potter, from the Snohomish County Prosecutor’s Office, brought their courthouse dog, Stilson, down to Tacoma to assist us on a case,” said Walker. “When I saw how the kids reacted to Stilson, and how he was instantly able to calm them, I knew Pierce County needed a courthouse dog.”
Kiley is trained to remain calm in all situations, ignoring visual and audible distractions. When Kiley is wearing her blue CCI vest, she is all business. She remains still, quiet and unobtrusive. There is other side to Kiley, though. When the vest comes off and she’s no longer on-duty, she acts like any another spunky Labrador retriever. Kiley runs, plays fetch and even gets to sleep on the furniture.
Some people see Kiley and think she is here just to comfort the kids. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Often, the victims most affected by Kiley are adults. One day, Kiley and Walker were in court providing comfort for a victim’s family when they noticed a woman, who was highly distraught, standing with a victim advocate. When Walker approached, the woman was crying and told her that she was the mother of a murder victim. Michelle introduced Kiley to the woman, and within minutes, the woman was smiling and laughing. An amazing feat.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Courthouse Dogs program, and the future looks bright. A recent Supreme Court decision upheld the use of facility dogs in the courtroom, despite claims that the dog’s presence would prejudice the jury. By the end of 2013, there were approximately 49 courthouse dogs working in 21 states across the country. At any given time, there are at least two dozen additional dogs working towards and becoming the next courthouse healer.
Heather Songer is the communications & public information coordinator for the Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney's Office.