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The healing power of animals
09:50 - Source: CNN

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Animals are being used in courtrooms to help witnesses testify and on college campuses to deal with students' stress

Courts and colleges are struggling to develop consistent policies about these animals

CNN  — 

A 15-year-old girl took the witness stand to testify against the accused, detailing extensive sexual abuse. David Crenshaw, the clinical supervisor of the girl’s therapist at the time of the June 2011 trial, said he and the therapist did not think she would be able to go through with it.

“She can’t even talk to me about the trauma, it’s so hard for her, so how in the world is she going to get up on the stand in front of a room full of people and testify?” Crenshaw said the therapist asked.

But the girl was not in the witness box by herself. At her feet sat Rosie, an 11-year-old service-trained golden retriever who had come out of retirement for the trial. The case was the first in New York state judicial history to permit a dog to accompany a child witness on the stand.

The girl testified for 1 hour and 15 minutes and was in contact with Rosie the whole time, petting her and at one point taking off her shoe and touching Rosie with her foot.

“To this day, she says she couldn’t have done it without Rosie,” Crenshaw said.

Courtroom canines like Rosie are known as facility dogs, and at least seven states have some type of law allowing their assistance on the witness stand.

In terms of training, facility dogs are more akin to service dogs than your average Fido; they must pass the public safety test used to certify service dogs who graduate from an accredited assistance dog organization. Celeste Walsen, executive director of the Courthouse Dogs Foundation, a nonprofit organization that trains and educates people about facility dogs, said that only about half of potential facility dogs complete the accreditation process; the dogs must be recertified annually.

Nevertheless, the number of facility dogs is on the rise, from just one in 2004 to 177 today, according to Walsen.

Colleges have also seen an uptick in the number of registered emotional support animals on campus.

Unlike facility dogs, emotional support animals need not be dogs nor obtain specific training, but a person who wants one must have documentation from a health professional to show a disability and a disability-related need for the animal in order to obtain protection under the Fair Housing Act. Such protection allows the animals to live in places where they may otherwise be prohibited.

Amid this influx of animals, classrooms and courtrooms are grappling with where to draw the line. A session Thursday at the annual American Psychological Association conference highlights preliminary research that may help both locales get out of the doghouse.

Canine courthouse companions

Facility dogs can have psychological and physiological benefits for children and other vulnerable witnesses, Walsen said. They keep the witness calm and in the moment, preventing them from reliving the trauma about which they may be testifying while raising their levels of the anti-fear hormone oxytocin and lowering their levels of the stress hormone cortisol, she added.

But one thing impeding a unified policy on courtroom facility dogs is the potential cuteness factor. Some defense attorneys and judges have voiced concerns that the practice may bias juries toward the person testifying.

Dawn McQuiston, an associate professor of psychology at Wofford College who is presenting research on dogs in court at Thursday’s conference, said the concern of bias is “completely valid,” and that’s why she undertook the research.

In three studies, she and her colleagues presented fictitious cases to participants, showing them pictures of a child witness with a dog, a teddy bear or nothing accompanying them. They were then asked about their perceptions of the witness’ credibility, the case’s strength and the defendant’s guilt. They found that while the presence of the dog had no significant effect on the mock jurors’ decisions, in the first two studies, the presence of the teddy bear did.

“We found nothing when the dog was present, but when a child is clutching a teddy bear, that actually seems to do something to the jury,” McQuiston said. Participants reported that the teddy bear made them angry, and that anger correlated with increased conviction rates of the defendant in the hypothetical cases.

McQuiston acknowledged that this research is still in its infancy; she hopes to use video footage rather than still pictures to more accurately mimic a real trial in future studies.

Emotional support animals on campus

Phyllis Erdman, executive associate dean for academic affairs in Washington State University’s College of Education, started noticing an increase in animals on campus five years ago, first at her school and then all over.

“if you go to airports, you know, you’re seeing more and more animals. If you go into stores, you’re seeing more and more animals,” she said. “It doesn’t take a close observer to realize they’re everywhere.”

Not only that, many faculty members were reporting being confused about the difference between service animals, emotional support animals and pets, and which they were legally obligated to allow into their classrooms. (The answer: Only service animals.)

Until this year, Erdman said, students could register emotional support animals with a note from any health professional, bypassing her university’s in-house counseling services, but the school has adjusted its policy to require students seeking emotional support animals to get a letter from the counseling center.

To gauge the state of requests on campuses nationwide, Erdman and her colleagues surveyed 248 university counseling centers about their policies for emotional support animals, publishing the results in 2016.

Although nearly 57% of counseling centers surveyed reported that they almost never received requests for the letters necessary for obtaining emotional support animals, the vast majority of the centers expressed concern and anxiety about the adequacy of their policies to handle such requests, whether or not they had received many of them.

Clarence Von Bergen, a professor of management at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and the author of a 2015 study about emotional support animals on campus, said schools’ concern and anxiety are justifiable.

He began to see the potential for legal loopholes when he spotted a student at his university carrying a small emotional support pig to and from her job. He said he’s noticed websites and organizations purporting to offer certification and apparel for emotional support animals as the trend has grown.

“The number of charlatans has increased, and there’s a lot more chicanery associated with this whole phenomenon,” he said.

Erdman said she believes that there should be standardized action taken that involves legal, mental health and policy professionals, but until then, college counseling staffers should make sure they are up-to-date on emotional support animals and the kinds of legal protection their owners are entitled. For example, they are not protected under the American Disabilities Act, like service dogs, but are protected in dorms and other living spaces by the Fair Housing Act.

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And in cases of gray areas, such as whether an emotional support animal is allowed at a student’s workplace or in a classroom, Von Bergen said universities should consult with their lawyers to avoid risking a lawsuit.

“I think that’s where these universities need to get their legal beagles involved,” he said.

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Dawn McQuiston’s name.