Legal Assistance Dogs
This project aims to deploy and establish in courts in France legal assistance dogs specifically dedicated to support vulnerable beneficiaries (mostly children and women) during the different stages of the legal procedure.
What does the project solve?
The legal assistance dogs (or courthouse dogs) accompany and psychologically support beneficiaries having experienced traumatic situations (often children and women in violent contexts) during the different stages of the legal procedure, from the initial hearing to the verdict, and even during legal medical examinations. The legal assistance dog plays an essential role, providing the weakened person emotional help (appeasement), while allowing her/him to do something that he/she could not necessarily do (example: verbalize what he/she has experienced).
The project is inspired by pioneering initiatives in the United States and Quebec.
A first French experiment of the legal assistance dog program started in the Lot region in March 2019 with the support of the Cahors public prosecutor and the local association France Victimes 46, belonging to the France Victimes network. The Association manages the accompaniment of victims in a comprehensive manner: psychological, legal, administrative, and social support.
The legal assistance dog plays an essential role; it allows the vulnerable person to do something that he or she would not necessarily be able to do (e.g. verbalize what he or she has experienced) while providing emotional support.
The program, which has proven to be successful, has been duplicated in other departments such as the Nièvre and the Bas-Rhin. A 5th dog, Rancho, a two-year-old black Labrador Retriever, was recently remitted (on May 14, 2022) to the SDIS 30 (firemen) to accomplish his mission at the Court of Nîmes.
The legal assistance dog is a professional social support dog, specially trained to accompany and morally support beneficiaries (mostly children and women having experienced traumatic situations) during the different stages of the legal procedure.
Its selection is subject to a rigorous examination carried out by the association Handi'Chiens - a public utility association that trains and gives assistance dogs free of charge.
The breeds chosen for their physical and behavioural qualities are Labradors and Golden Retrievers, which are very sympathetic to humans and have a reputation for being very sociable. The dog follows a complete 2-year training program adapted to its future role, during which he learns about 50 commands. A legal assistance dog must stay calm in all circumstances and not react (bark) if any tension arises during a judicial act (agitation, raising of voice).
Participating in a court hearing or other forms of legal proceedings can represent a high level of stress, because in addition to the trauma experienced, there is the trauma of dealing with investigators, investigating magistrates, the prosecutor/lawyer/judge trilogy, and the defendant, not to mention the steps taken in a hospital. The presence of a Legal Assistance Dog considerably softens these anxiety-provoking situations, helping the person to cope with the initial trauma, supporting him or her throughout the reconstruction process, and contributing to improving the quality of the legal process.
Accompaniment by a Legal Assistance Dog is freely chosen, and the protocol is developed on a case-by-case basis. A meeting time is scheduled to create a link and to give the person confidence. The courthouse dog is housed with specially trained referents who provide transportation and accompany the dog when his presence is requested; they also ensure that the dog practices daily the commands learned during the initial training.
This project is developed in partnership with several stakeholders: France Victime, Handi'Chiens, the Adrienne and Pierre Sommer Foundation, the courts, the firemen. In France, the ambition is to equip at least 14 courts with a legal assistance dog by 2025.