‘Facility Dog’ bill is printed by Legislature

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Ken, an exceptionally easygoing 2-year-old Black Labrador/golden retriever mix, rests at the courthouse while being introduced to local judges. Ken was trained to be a courthouse facility dog, which means he will accompany child witnesses when they are on the witness stand. (Photo by KEITH KINNAIRD)

BOISE — The Senate Judiciary and Rules Committee unanimously agreed Monday to print a bill that would allow for “facility dogs” in courtrooms around the state.

Bonner County Prosecutor Louis Marshall explained that facility dogs are specially trained canines that help children face the anxiety of testifying on the stand about abuse. The Bonner County courthouse already has a dog named Ken. Judges there have allowed the practice, though it isn’t yet explicitly spelled out in Idaho Code.

Marshall said many cases involving minor witnesses in criminal cases used to be handled by interviewing the child in a private setting and then showing the testimony to a jury.

But the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that a defendant’s right to face their accuser applies even if the accuser is a very young child.

“Now we have to put kids on the stand almost always,” Marshall said.

In such situations, children are already allowed to have a friend or loved one present to provide them a sense of security.

“There have been a lot of studies on the reduction of anxiety,” he said. “When a person calms down, especially a child, they are going to give you more accurate information.”

Facility dogs are an alternative that was pioneered in Seattle, Marshall said. Their use has slowly been spreading around the country in recent years.

And facility dogs provide a better alternative, Marshall said. One of the main concerns about having a parent present, he said, is that parents sometimes coach their children, whether consciously or unconsciously, to tell specific stories in court. Having a parent with a child in the witness box presents the risk that such coaching could be occurring on the stand, a worry that isn’t present with a facility dog.

“I think for defendants this is a positive too, and that’s why we haven’t had a whole lot of push-back involving Ken so far,” he said.

The main worry about letting a dog be present with a child during testimony is that it could be unduly prejudicial to a defendant, but Marshall said certified facility dogs undergo at least two years of training to avoid that problem.

The dogs, Marshall said, are specially trained to remain silent and to stay low in the witness box. They are brought into the witness box before the jury is brought into the room. Ideally, the jury doesn’t know a dog is present.

Sen. Kelly Anthon, R-Burley, asked whether appeals courts had ever found that a facility dog created an issue for appeal. Marshall said all court rulings so far on the matter have been positive.

The vote to print the bill was unanimous. It still faces committee hearings and floor votes in both the House and Senate before heading to Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s desk.

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