Border (Collie) in the Court!

Is that witness telling the truth? Who cares? Look at the puppy!

Legal minds are at odds over a courtroom innovation that’s spreading across the country: the use of therapy dogs as “testimony enablers” for witnesses who might be intimidated on the stand. In June, a golden retriever named Rosie comforted a 15-year-old girl in a New York courtroom as she testified that her father had raped her and gotten her pregnant. When the girl faltered on the stand, the dog nuzzled her and leaned in closer. When the father was found guilty, the teenager hugged the dog in gratitude.

If you’re ever owned a dog, you know how comforting they can be in times of trouble and stress. And it must have been agonizing for that young girl to speak out publicly against a man who’d violated her trust in such fundamental ways. But I have some problems with the defense-dog trend, which started in 2003 in Washington State. “Sometimes the dog means the difference between a conviction and an acquittal,” Seattle prosecutor Ellen O’Neill Stephens told the Times. No doubt that’s true. But you have to ask exactly why.

I’m a total sucker for dogs, especially big dogs like Rosie. Though my head knows dogs are just animals, a lifetime of exposure to Rin Tin Tin and Lassie and Old Yeller and Big Red—not to mention Clifford—has taught me that they’re pure and wise and, indeed, sacred diviners of one’s inmost soul. (Good or evil human being? A dog can just tell.) Lately, scientists have trained canines to sniff out cancer, predict epileptic seizures and alert the deaf to emergencies. Dogs help the helpless! They save lives! You know what “dog” spelled backwards is, right?

With all due sympathy to the victim Rosie comforted, if I were on a jury, I’d surely be swayed to side with someone sitting in the witness box with a big, fluffy dog watching her with adoring eyes. In the New York case, that’s exactly what the father’s lawyers argued to the court, and will say on appeal. Besides, as one of them noted, “There was no way for me to cross-examine the dog.”