Bellevue-based Courthouse Dogs Foundation helps victims as they relive trauma

Sheryl Speight and Courthouse Dog Wilson. Raechel Dawson/staff photo

After a child has gone through abuse or neglect, it’s often hard for them to retell their traumatic story.

But Bellevue-based Courthouse Dogs Foundation has found a way to help.

Founded in 2003 by Ellen O’Neill-Stephens, Courthouse Dogs trains legal professionals to use assistance dogs during their investigation and prosecution of crimes against victims who need emotional support.

O’Neill-Stephens discovered the need for these companions after she brought her son’s service dog to work one day. She had been working as a deputy prosecuting attorney for King County drug court and was working a case involving twin sisters. The dog, named Jeeter, accompanied the girls to court during competency hearings and trial testimony and the rest is history, as Jeeter provided “emotional support to everyone during the process.”

Courthouse Dogs outreach coordinator Sheryl Speight said it changed the face of the legal system.

“Dogs help them feel safe,” Speight said of the victims.

Sometimes, the dogs help children open up for the first time about a horrible experience. Because investigators aren’t supposed to show a lot of emotion, it especially helps when a dog cuddles with a victim.

“These kids leave happier then when they came in,” Speight said, noting that the presence of a calm dog can lower blood pressure, raise oxytocin levels, make someone feel safe and they are non-judgmental.

The dogs are trained by accredited Assistance Dogs International organizations for two years and are purposefully bread for the program. Speight said this means they’re trained to be “non-flappable,” which means they do not react to emotions, and they’ve been trained to remain calm and lay down for hours at a time.

Speight estimates there’s about 150 trained dogs throughout the United States. In the last three years, the program has taken on 23 dogs, she added.

“It’s grown like wildfire,” she said.

The foundation’s goal is to have a dog in every state and every court jurisdiction.

“The hope is the dog is available for a child throughout the whole time,” she said, adding that includes things like physical exams from a doctor, if needed.

Once dogs are trained and available, Courthouse Dogs will then train legal professionals (police, investigators, prosecutors, etc.) or Court Appointed Special Advocates to handle and care for the dog if they opt in.

To connect Courthouse Dogs owners and other similar programs, Courthouse Dogs Foundation is gearing up for its fifth annual conference. This year’s conference will be held from Sept. 28-30 at the Hyatt Regency in Bellevue. Coinciding with the conference will be Yappy Hour from 5-6:30 p.m. Sept. 29 at the Hyatt Regency Ballroom and is open to the public. After Yappy Hour, there will be a reading of “A Dog in the Big Courthouse” by Nicole Pearson, Maya Keegan and Jon-Paul Verfaillie from 7:30-9 p.m. Sept. 29 at the Hyatt Regency Ballroom.

For more information, visit courthousedogs.org.