Menu Close
Winston, a justice facility dog trained by Guide Dogs WA
Winston, a justice facility dog trained by Guide Dogs WA. David French/Edith Cowan University, CC BY-ND

Kids, courts, canines: can justice facility dogs like Winston help children and the broader court system?

The recent focus on youth crime in Australia may create a perception that all children in court have offended. But of course, children are also in courts because they have been victims of and/or witnesses to criminal events.

Children can be required to give evidence in these situations. Often, they have suffered or are still suffering the trauma associated with those events.

It is important these children are made as comfortable and relaxed as possible during their time in court. This is where “justice facility dogs” can help.

Reducing stress and anxiety in court

Accurate testimony is essential to prevent miscarriages of justice. When people are stressed and anxious during cross-examination, it can affect their perceived credibility and even hinder the justice process and result in non-convictions.

So findings ways to improve wellbeing is important for the wider court process.

Courts recognise that giving evidence causes high levels of anxiety and stress, and that courtrooms can be intimating and stressful for children. Therefore, courts regularly look to find ways to improve the experiences of vulnerable child witnesses and victims.

Winston’s arrival in WA

Facility dogs have been used in some Australian courts, most recently at the Perth Children’s Court in a partnership between the Office of the Commissioner for Victims of Crime and Guide Dogs WA.

The WA initiative is the first of its kind in an Australian children’s court – with a dedicated, specially trained justice facility dog interacting with children before and after they give evidence.

The Western Australian government states there is “significant evidence to show that interacting with a facility dog can reduce stress, increase mental clarity and improve speech and memory function.”

Advocates for facility dogs say they can help reduce stress and anxiety for people in court.

Winston, the black Labrador and former guide dog, was retrained to assist child victims and witnesses, with his wellbeing constantly monitored by his specialised handler.

Winston and his handler, also from Guide Dogs WA, work with witnesses, victims of crime and other vulnerable people in the court’s witness waiting areas – he isn’t allowed in the courtroom itself, though.

The goal of this initiative is to minimise the adverse psychological consequences and reduce the risk of trauma for children providing testimony.

But is Winston’s presence making a difference?

Our recently published research evaluated whether those goals were being met and whether, in meeting those goals, the process of the courts was being negatively impacted.

What did the research reveal?

We conducted short surveys using a tablet with a sliding scale from smiley to sad faces so children could give a quick and simple report of how they were feeling before and after they interacted with Winston.

Our research found Winston’s interactions with children, such as laying by their feet, significantly reduced stress and anxiety, making the experience better for children by reducing the stress associated with court appearances.

When asked about Winston, some children stated:

“He helps with getting stuff off your mind.”

“Winston is a very good service dog, and he calmed me down and helped me. I think he’s very good at what he does.”

“He made me feel comforted and helped a lot with the nerves.”

We also surveyed parents about their opinions, their children’s interactions and about their own stress and anxiety.

One replied:

My daughter was so nervous to come today but when she heard about Winston, she got excited. He has been the best company for all of us. Having him here has changed the whole atmosphere of the wait. You have to keep this running!! We love Winston!

Parents reported Winston lowered their own stress levels as well:

“I was caught up in my thoughts and he helped ground me and bring me back in. He is well trained. You forget the situation.”

What about court staff?

While the results from children and parents were overwhelmingly positive, an important part of the study was a survey with court staff and other court stakeholders about whether a justice facility dog impacted the functioning of the court.

They reported no negative impacts, adding Winston’s presence also reduced tension within the court environment.

Staff discussed the pleasure they received from Winston’s presence and how he reduced tension for busy court staff who worked in a stressful and sometimes highly charged environment.

Downsides and further possibilities

Overall, the evaluation was overwhelmingly positive, but some recommendations were noted.

At the time of the research, the program did not run on all court days, so some children did not have the option to interact with Winston.

Staff felt it would be beneficial to have a facility dog attend every day and to have access to courtrooms, not just waiting areas to support children giving evidence.

This facility dog program is an example of justice innovation to improve the experiences of vulnerable court users, and their parents and staff.

The program can alleviate stress and anxiety and even promote engagement in the justice process, potentially avoiding trial delays or abandonment due to witness or victims withdrawing due to stress.

It goes to show just how important a dog like Winston can be.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 185,600 academics and researchers from 4,982 institutions.

Register now