“Working Like a Dog”

alf2Curious phrase, isn’t it? When we had dogs — two Border collies and Alfre (shown), a Retriever-Samoyed mix — I often looked at them and thought “that’s how I want to work — eat, nap, chase a few squirrels, nap, go for a walk, nap.”

Joking aside, who doesn’t admire service dogs? The Dec-Jan issue of the Washington State Bar Association journal, now called the NW Lawyer, introduced me to the concept of Courthouse Dogs. 49 dogs now work in 21 states and other locations, with add’l programs under development. The trained dogs may comfort a witness — they are particularly good for children testifying against abusers or witnesses with extreme anxiety. The Washington Supreme Court upheld the use of a “facility dog” in the courtroom in a burglary case, where the victim suffers from developmental disabilities and was extremely anxious about testifying. His own service dog accompanied him. The defense objected, arguing “undue prejudice,” compromise of the defendant’s right to confront his accuser, and an aura of sympathy. The Court found for the dog.

But the concerns about the effect on the right to a fair trial are legitimate. Courts have addressed them in several ways — influenced in part by experience with other types of service dogs in the courtroom. The dog may not need to be in the witness box; if it is, it’s typically not visible to the jury. Judges can give “cautionary instructions,” telling the jury not to consider the dog’s presence. And of course, defendants and their witnesses have the same rights to a dog’s presence as witnesses for the prosecution.

Can you use a service or facility dog, or an argument about one, in your story? How will your characters respond? These dogs bring comfort; how can you can use to add tension?