Courtroom dog at center of legal battle

August 15, 2011

Rosie is an adorable golden retriever (shown at right) who lives in Duchess County, New York. She’s a therapy dog, and as part of her duties she works to calm people in particularly stressful situations, such as testifying in court proceedings. That’s where her story becomes interesting. Rosie recently assisted a teenage victim in a rape case who was testifying under oath against her accuser. The New York Times picks up the story:

The new role for dogs as testimony enablers can, however, raise thorny legal questions. Defense lawyers argue that the dogs may unfairly sway jurors with their cuteness and the natural empathy they attract, whether a witness is telling the truth or not, and some prosecutors insist that the courtroom dogs can be a crucial comfort to those enduring the ordeal of testifying, especially children.

The new witness-stand role for dogs in several states began in 2003, when the prosecution won permission for a dog named Jeeter with a beige button nose to help in a sexual assault case in Seattle. “Sometimes the dog means the difference between a conviction and an acquittal,” said Ellen O’Neill-Stephens, a prosecutor there who has become a campaigner for the dog-in-court cause.

Service dogs have long been permitted in courts. But in a ruling in June that allowed Rosie to accompany the teenage rape victim to the trial here, a Dutchess County Court judge, Stephen L. Greller, said the teenager was traumatized and the defendant, Victor Tohom, appeared threatening. Although he said there was no precedent in the state, Judge Greller ruled that Rosie was similar to the teddy bear that a New York appeals court said in 1994 could accompany a child witness.

At least once when the teenager hesitated in Judge Greller’s courtroom, the dog rose and seemed to push the girl gently with her nose. Mr. Tohom was convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life.

Is the mere presence of a cute dog who offers comfort an unfairly prejudicial influence on a jury? Interesting question, isn’t it?

The dog park question in Vancouver: It’s a never-ending recurrence: the tension between the rights of dog owners and non-dog owners in public spaces. The latest setting is Vancouver, British Columbia. The story comes from the Globe and Mail.

Beware of counterfeit medication: How many times have we warned against buying bargain medications from online retailers because of the risk of them being counterfeit (and even worse, harmful)? The latest troubling anecdote appeared in the Daily Kos. Marge Wright tipped me to the link discussing the fatal poisoning of a dog in Centreville, Virginia, due to probable bogus knockoff medication packaged as Frontline. EPA and FDA both know about it. Still, every year dogs and cats die because the truth never goes away: if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. The ten or twenty bucks you think you’re saving aren’t worth your pet’s life.

Heartworm supply shortage: Speaking of medication, VIN News confirms the shortage of Immiticide that has been looming since last year is reaching an even more serious levels.

Little known kitteh fact? CathyA forwarded this link to me (as well as the heartworm link above), and I don’t have a reason to dispute it…though I can’t confirm it, either. When cats are stressed, their right ear is hotter than their left. Anyone want to test this one out and report back?

Fun infographic! Thanks to the Pet365Blog, via Dogster, for this fun infographic: Dog vs. Human anatomy facts.

Video of the week comes from my pal Miz in Sacramento: Herm vs. the stairs. What’s that?  I only cited it because it shows a little bitty dachshund? I have no idea what you’re talking about. Is that a dachshund? Really? I didn’t know.

I always like to hear from readers, especially if you have tips, and links for interesting stories.  Give me a shout in the comments, or better yet, send me an e-mail.

Image credit: Rosie, Kelly Shimoda for NYT.

Filed under: pets, connected,veterinary medicine — David S. Greene @ 5:00 am


  1. The healing and calmative posers of a dog are not to be taken lightly. And I am sure that the defense attorney complained- “Objection, the dog is leading the witness!”

    Comment by Paul — August 15, 2011 @ 5:52 am

  2. Oh criminy – well is it ok if child rape victims have an UGLY DOG to comfort them during testimony? Maybe a dog missing an eyeball or no teeth or whatever?

    Comment by YesBiscuit! — August 15, 2011 @ 6:06 am

  3. “Sometimes the dog means the difference between a conviction and an acquittal,”

    Am I the only person very troubled by this statement, and the assumptions behind it?

    The main one being, the accused is guilty and it’s the court’s job to see to it that all power is brought to bear in order to establish that guilt.

    Not, last time I checked, the way our criminal justice systems is supposed to work.

    Comment by H. Houlahan — August 15, 2011 @ 7:40 am

  4. Heather, you just nailed the most important point arguing against the policy, in spite of all its potential benefits.

    Comment by David S. Greene — August 15, 2011 @ 7:47 am

  5. I interpreted the comment differently I think. As in – it makes the difference between whether a traumatized rape victim is able to testify in court or whether the prosecution must present a case w/out the only witness who can tell the jury about the crime.

    Comment by YesBiscuit! — August 15, 2011 @ 8:31 am

  6. Maybe they should give the defense a golden retriever, too, and see what happens. Then the playing ground would be fair. I am sure the outcome would still be the same. What a load of horse pucky!!

    Comment by Jill Gibbs — August 15, 2011 @ 8:35 am

  7. BTW, love the Creamhead!! Of course. :-)

    Comment by Jill Gibbs — August 15, 2011 @ 8:36 am

  8. Lindsey says his right ear does get hotter when he’s upset, but since the researchers ALSO checked rectal temperatures (but didn’t find any changes), he’s not participating in this or any further study on the matter.

    (Poor little guy — his right ear seems to take all the trauma — it itches more than the left, it gets redder under stress and the edges are bent over because he had a hematoma in it a few years ago.)

    Comment by Dorene — August 15, 2011 @ 3:33 pm

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