North Texas

New Bill Could Bring Comfort Dogs into Courthouses

Certified comfort dogs could be requested in federal criminal trials to literally comfort witnesses during difficult testimony.

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A courtroom can be a scary place, especially for children.

But some four-legged friends are in training to save the day in a unique way with a new bill in the works in Washington.

The Courthouse Dogs Act by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) could bring trained and certified comfort dogs into courthouses for federal criminal trials to comfort witnesses during difficult testimony.

NBC 5 had the chance to meet some of these special dogs at non-profit Canine Companions for Independence in Irving, which trains dogs for big jobs like this. Since 1975, CCI has specialized in training assistance dogs for adults, children and veterans with different needs. The dogs are provided for free of charge to recipients.

The bill would allow for these accredited comfort dogs to be requested in federal criminal proceedings to help vulnerable witnesses -- especially children -- as they testify in court.

“A lot of times, both children and young adults are extremely afraid of that whole process. It’s really intense and on top of it, they have really seen a lot of hard things that they have to go through. So having these dogs be able to be that comfort for them," said Aubree Nicholas, a apprentice instructor for CCI.

At the request of local district attorneys, the dogs could become a part of the courthouse, working with witnesses in federal criminal trials both before and during testimony. The pups would even be allowed inside the court box with witnesses.

Nicholas said witnesses can experience emotional trauma, affecting their ability to answer questions --  but the hope is for these dogs to help facilitate a more accurate and fair trial.

“There’s a lot of evidence that our memories can be really fuzzy, especially in these emotional times," said Nicholas. “We want to make sure that the dog has that kind of calm energy that they are there just to be that support for the child or individual that is going through that really tough time."

The dogs are incredibly trained to be a calming presence and can even grab objects like tissues for people.

CCI said some states like Alabama and even some counties in Texas have courthouse dogs regulations in place but we have not seen anything like this in North Texas.

The bill passed the Senate on Dec. 19 and Cornyn's next step is to call for the House to take it up in the coming months.

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