The young girl, while being asked to talk about the severe abuse she suffered, turned to one of her best friends and biggest supporters, Pavlov, a trained Labrador who works at the Child Advocacy Center in Cheatham County. The dog provides comforts to victims and witnesses during the often painful court process.
Pavlov joined the staff at the 23rd Judicial District Child Advocacy Center in November 2012 and made his very first court appearance at the end of June. Pavlov is the first dog used in a courtroom to comfort child victims. Inside the courtroom, he comforted an 11-year-old abuse victim as she testified a few feet away from her alleged abuser.
“When I started asking the victim questions, it was almost an involuntary reaction that she went to pet the dog,” said Cheatham County Assistant District Attorney Ray Crouch. “I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
Kim Stringfield-Davis, CAC director and Pavlov’s guardian, said the following plan of action is to eliminate the doubt of several state judges who don’t plan to allow dogs inside their courtrooms.
“Ultimately, it is up to the judge. It is his courtroom,” Stringfield-Davis said. “We are so thankful for Judge (Larry) Wallace and hope others will see the benefit of dogs like Pavlov. It just reduces the trauma the child will experience.”
Ellen O’Neill-Stephens, founder of national nonprofit Courthouse Dogs, mentioned that since the use of courtroom dogs can cause the jury to look more favorable on a witness’s testimony, defense attorneys often oppose to it. On the other hand, legal precedent in general permits a witness who would often have a problem testifying the use of a comfort item while in the witness box.
“If I were a defense attorney, and I’m kind of playing devil’s advocate, I could object some solicitation of sorrow or sympathy from the jury,” attorney Crouch said.
“These dogs are the least prejudicial to the defendant,” O’Neill-Stephens said. “These dogs are so well trained. They are able to lie quietly at witnesses’ feet and, in most cases, are totally concealed from the jury.”
At present, only 19 states use courtroom dogs, and Tennessee is going to get 2 more.
O’Neill-Stephens said the child advocacy center in Cookeville is planned to have one in August and Clarksville is on the waiting list.
“Dogs are impartial. They don’t care if you’re homeless, wealthy or what side of the law you’re on,” O’Neill-Stephens said. “They are legally neutral.”
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