Dogs bring calm to the courthouse
Keli Trautman was not alone when she met the teenage sexual abuse victim who was about to testify in court.
Trautman, a paralegal and victim witness coordinator for the Stearns County District Attorney, was accompanied by a prosecutor and Nova, a 4-year-old golden retriever.
“The teenager was staring straight ahead. She was traumatized and didn’t want to meet us,” Trautman said. “She was not sobbing audibly, but tears were streaming down her face. Nova saw it and approached her.”
Nova has been a calming presence since joining the Stearns County District Attorney’s Office in 2019. With Trautman as her manager, she met with dozens of young victims of crime to ease what is often a heartbreaking experience.
“We deal with people in difficult times, when something really bad has happened,” Stearns County District Attorney Janelle Kendall said. Nova, she said, “is able to sense stress and be a positive influence.”
Unlike law enforcement dogs who associate with the police or are tasked with detecting drugs or bombs, courthouse dogs’ job is to be a calming presence. And while service, therapy, or emotional support dogs focus on supporting a single individual, facility dogs are bred and trained to read signals from an unlimited number of people and know when to snuggle. , snuggle up, let yourself be caressed or simply lie quietly nearby.
Norie is the Ramsey County District Attorney’s office dog. Like her littermate Nova, Norie spent her first two years in a vocational training program with Helping Paws, an assistance dog organization in Hopkins.
After that, both dogs received additional training in the legal field. Norie and Nova are two of three courthouse dogs who work as canine aides in Minnesota. There is also a courthouse dog at the Hennepin County District Attorney’s office.
Norie lives with her manager Bill Kubes, a Ramsey County victim/witness advocate. He keeps his 55-pound load in tip-top shape by exercising, brushing his teeth, and building his skills every day. In addition to sit, shake, drop and stay, Norie has some ice-breaking tricks. She can turn on a light switch with her muzzle or use her mouth to carry a basket full of trading card-style photos of herself, which she presents to new acquaintances.
“It’s hard to explain how wonderful she is,” Kubes said. “Everyone she meets sees it.”
Kubes has witnessed Norie’s impact in pre-trial meetings, where she serves as a companion for witnesses or victims of abuse, neglect, domestic violence and criminal cases.
“There was a 10-year-old girl in a sexual abuse case who was scared and didn’t want to explain what happened to her to a group of adults she didn’t know,” he said. “Norie came in and played with her for a while and made her feel comfortable. She said ‘I love Norie’ when we were done.”
Releasing tension can make the court process more humane for vulnerable people, Ramsey County District Attorney John Choi said.
“Preparing witnesses for trial can re-traumatize them,” he said. “A better experience helps mitigate that.”
Although facility dogs are new to Minnesota, they have become common in many criminal justice settings. The Courthouse Dogs Foundation estimates that there are 273 working facility dogs in 41 states and nine countries around the world.
“It’s an idea that has caught on because it works,” said Ellen O’Neill-Stephens, co-founder of the Washington-based foundation. “It’s not just a good thing; there’s evidence that the dog’s presence is an asset.”
O’Neill-Stephens, a retired Seattle county attorney, unwittingly created the courthouse’s first dog when she brought her disabled son’s service dog to work. A fellow prosecutor asked to borrow the Lab retriever while interviewing a shy boy in an abuse case.
“Right away we saw that a trained dog benefits the fact-finding process,” she said. “A calm witness does not close down and is better able to reflect and articulate what happened to them.”
In 2004, his firm acquired the first canine installation in the world. Since then, the American Bar Association and the National District Attorneys Association have endorsed establishment dogs. Research has also confirmed that stress levels are reduced when a witness child is questioned in the presence of a trained dog.
Ready for the courtroom
In at least 15 states, courthouse dogs also accompany witnesses when they testify before a judge and jury. In Minnesota, they’ve only worked with witnesses and victims in pretrial and investigative proceedings, but that may be about to change.
The Stearns and Hennepin county prosecutors’ offices say they are prepared to approach district court officials and request that their dogs be present at hearings, including trials.
“We’re ready to do that when the right case comes along,” Kendall said.
Hennepin County certified dog Barrett is also ready to enter courtrooms during trials.
The leggy golden doodle arrived at the Hennepin County District Attorney’s office just over two years ago. He has met with victims, but his integration into formal courtroom testimony has been slowed by the pandemic as fewer in-person proceedings have been scheduled.
“Judges are reasonably concerned about a dog in their courtroom, but when they meet Barrett, they understand how attentive and well-behaved he is,” said Jean Burdorf, general counsel for the Special Litigation Division of the Hennepin county.
“We have brought him informally to the district court to present him. As business resumes, I have promised our chief justice that we will hold a seminar to prepare our judges,” she said. “But if the right case arose where it would be essential for Barrett to be there, he’s ready now.”
In Ramsey County, Choi said he’s been in the midst of “lengthy conversations” with judges and court administrators about using Norie in courtrooms. He’s confident that Norie’s skills and courthouse dog background will win over any doubters.
“Norie is here to stay,” Choi said. “She’s part of what we do and how we do it.”
Hennepin County District Attorney Mike Freeman hopes to use Barrett beyond the criminal courtroom, in child protection hearings or non-jury juvenile court proceedings.
“These can be tough cases when a young person may even have to testify against their mother or father. I’ve heard from other prosecutors that these dogs help witnesses tell the truth outright in a way that even the most compassionate lawyers and victim advocates cannot,” he said.
Freeman finds Barrett’s presence has also contributed to a calmer work culture for his staff.
“It’s more tense here at the moment, the cases we are judging are more serious,” he said. “I find my own stress levels go down around Barrett. I swear he smiles at me.”