Support dogs are providing comfort to victims of crime and vulnerable witnesses giving evidence in court, under a pilot program being extended by the Office of Public Prosecutions into 2018.
Since October, a fully trained three-year-old Labrador named Coop has been available for half a day each week to sit with vulnerable witnesses when they are waiting for court or giving evidence at the OPP’s remote witness facility.
The OPP Witness Assistance Service report that having Coop nearby noticeably reduces stress for witnesses and victims, allowing them to give evidence with fewer breaks and stay engaged in the court process.
Coop, trained by ‘K9 Support’, can take commands from strangers, make eye contact and physical contact, respond to emotional states, and lie beside someone for extended periods of time.
Following the success of the pilot program, the OPP is extending the program to two full days a week with Coop in 2018. A puppy-in-training, called Champ, is also being taught to follow in Coop’s footsteps.
Training a support dog takes 18 months as the dogs need to be able to cope with highly emotional witnesses.
National and international studies show that support dogs help in stressful situations, assisting witnesses to maintain their composure and recall facts more easily.
Similar programs have been used in US courts since the 1990s.