The Canine Court Companion Program is a partnership initiative led by Victims Services and Court and Tribunal Services to support victims, witnesses and other court users through the visitation of therapy dogs in Local Courts in NSW.
As part of the program, therapy dogs and volunteer handlers visit the publicly accessible areas of a court for 90 minutes on nominated days with the aim of reducing any stress and anxiety associated with the court experience. Therapy dogs and their handlers also play an important role in the safe rooms to help create a non-threatening court environment for children, vulnerable witnesses and victims of domestic and family violence.
The program is currently operational at Manly, Gosford, Sutherland, Burwood and Campbelltown Local Courts, and will be rolled out to the following regional NSW local courts by May 2019:
Whilst the program is one of a kind in Australia; therapy dogs have been used to support court users across the United States for decades.
There is growing evidence to support the use of therapy dogs in the court setting due to the ability of the dogs to alleviate symptoms associated with trauma.
In August 2017, the use of therapy animals to support witnesses was recommended in section 61 (b) of the Criminal Justice Report by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Studies also show that animal-assisted intervention provides additional physiological benefits such as lowered heart rate, increased speech and memory functions and heightened mental clarity.
Victims Services currently works with Guide Dogs NSW/ACT to deliver services for the Canine Court Companion Program through its 'Pets as Therapy' program. The Guide Dogs 'Pets as Therapy' program has been running for over 30 years and involves re-classified Assistance or Guide Dogs delivering therapy services at schools, hospitals, aged care facilities and other Government service locations including Ambulance NSW.
Volunteer handlers are present in the main areas of the court with the therapy dogs from 9am/9:30am to 10:30am/11am, 4 days per week. The visits are limited to 90 minutes to ensure the wellbeing of the dogs, and will not disrupt the court's day-to-day functions. Nominated days vary for each court location, so please speak with Registry staff for more information regarding this.
Canine Court Companion Therapy Dogs have been trained by Guide Dogs NSW/ACT and have up to two years of intensive training. They also receive further training and professional support throughout their working lives. Therapy dogs remain with their handlers and only engage with people whom require support.
Victims Services began trialling therapy dogs in Manly Local Court in April 2017 working with Delta Society and received an overwhelmingly positive response to the pilot with 100% of participants reporting reduced anxiety after interaction with a therapy dog at court. The pilot evaluation also found the program did not disrupt the general functions of the court and offered benefits to court users, court staff and stakeholders.
If you have more questions regarding the program, please feel free to email SRT@justice.nsw.gov.au