Georgetown High student completes year-long research project on how therapy dogs serve in the courtroom
Drew Arnold is a fan of dogs. There’s no family dog in the picture at this time, what with full school and sports schedules for the Georgetown High School rising junior and his younger brother, Dan, but Drew’s future will likely include a dog or two, one way or another.
Drew also likes the law. His father, Judge Doug Arnold for County Court Three, and mother, Jamie Arnold, a psychology professor at Temple College, have encouraged Drew’s early explorations of the law. He hopes to attend law school a few years down the road and takes classes in the GISD’s Principles of Law, Public Safety, Corrections, and Security curriculum, part of the public service endorsement track. Participation in Teen Court, which allows students to study actual juvenile cases, and a summer 2015 internship with Judge Bill Gravell (Williamson County Precinct 3), have provided Drew with a good look at the law in action.
So when Drew had the chance to spend the school year learning about the use of therapy dogs in the courtroom through GHS’s Capstone program, he grabbed it. The yearlong Capstone course offers motivated high school students opportunities to explore in depth a subject that interests them or to plan and carry out long-term artistic projects, under the guidance of a faculty member. Capstone is a demanding course. Students must generate the idea for their project, develop a time line of tasks and stick to it, use discipline-appropriate research methods and tools, and submit their final product or performance to judges in the subject field.
Capstone independent studies usually happen during a student’s senior year, according to Drew’s advisor, Wes Collman, who teaches Advanced Placement English, oversees Capstone projects, and coordinates academic UIL activities at Georgetown High School. Not only was Drew unusual in taking on the project during his sophomore year, says Mr. Collman, but his project was unusual, too: “Whereas some students study rocketry, interior design, architecture, art, culinary art, playwriting, or music, Drew decided on researching the impact of therapy animals in the courtroom.”
Therapy dogs have been in use in various settings—hospitals, libraries, and homes—for some time. Only recently have they begun to put their canine skills to use in courtrooms, where they provide a calming presence in situations that are often emotionally fraught. Drew has learned, through research, observation in the courtroom, and hands-on experience, how therapy dogs can especially help victims who “are nervous and need to get out beneficial testimony.” He traveled to Conroe, in Montgomery County, to watch Ranger, a full-time therapy dog, at work. Ranger, a nine-year-old Lab, brings his laid-back Labrador retriever attitude to tense scenes. He can sit by a child who must answer painful questions, and he’s available for petting when people need something to do with hands that are shaking with nervousness or worry.
Closer to home, Drew got to know Williamson County’s part-time therapy dog, Lady, and study the effects of her presence in the courtroom.
Not all dogs are suited to therapy work of any kind. Thorough training and natural temperament, as therapy dogs’ handlers know, are both required. Lady is a six-year-old Great Pyrenees mix—maybe. Like many good dogs, her provenance is less than clear, but her sweet nature is obvious to anyone who meets her. Clara and Robbie Licandro, members of the Sun City Pet Club’s Therapy Dog Program, are Lady’s handlers and family. Clara explains that dogs must first achieve the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen Award. Then the Sun City Pet Club trains and evaluates dog-handler teams using Pet Partners’ nationally-known standards. The Pet Partners’ method teaches handlers, assesses dogs’ particular aptitudes, and matches teams to appropriate community facilities. Under the Licandros’ guidance, Lady has served as a reading dog and has visited hospitals, assisted living facilities, and—most recently—courtrooms. She seems to sense when people need relief. Clara recalls a day at a hospital when Lady, Clara at her side, eased her way up against a woman seated in the waiting room. Clara learned that the woman was there for her son’s cancer care. Somehow, Lady knew that the woman would benefit from a moment of canine comfort. “It’s a great experience,” Clara says, “to be able to take our dog and have her interact with so many people and to bring them joy.”
Lady has a special affinity with children, so juvenile court, where she currently works part-time, is a good fit for her abilities. It was also the perfect place for Drew to observe her at work, since he’s already familiar with the setting from his Teen Court experiences and his internship with Judge Gravell, who presides over many juvenile cases. Judge Gravell calls Lady “Baby Girl” and says she has a “gentle spirit.” He’s seen her “cringe,” for example, when children must give difficult testimony. “People can’t tell their stories if they’re shuddering or crying,” Judge Gravell notes, and in the courtroom, justice and fair treatment depend on hearing each person’s story. “The future of the court has to do with the feelings and stories of everyone involved,” he notes, and therapy dogs like Lady are an “innovative” aid to allowing those stories to be told.
It’s not just the people involved in the trial, however, who benefit from Lady’s presence. Judge Gravell says that she helps him relax, too, as he works with youth and their families. And anyone who follows Lady as she heads down the hallway toward court can see the reactions she gets: sometimes surprise, but usually smiles and chuckles from the people she passes, and greetings and pats from courthouse personnel who already know her.
Drew learned, as he researched the use of therapy dogs in courtrooms and observed Lady and her handlers in action, how well-trained therapy dogs can help by
- offering moral support through physical contact, such as the dog resting its head on a witness’s feet during testimony,
- boosting morale of courtroom personnel during hearings that can sometimes involve heart-breaking evidence and wrenching decisions,
- and providing a friendly and utterly nonjudgmental presence to young people facing disciplinary action.
Drew studied one Williamson County case, for example, that involved a student who had been truant from school. The student’s severe social anxiety made it difficult for her to face school each day, and her absences mounted. But to appear in court triggered her anxiety as well. With Lady by her side, however, the student was able to manage her court appearance.
Many months of research and observation and a spring break spent traveling to other courtrooms have made Drew something of an expert on this innovation in the courtroom. “The Capstone project has been a great experience,” he says. “I learned a lot about how people and dogs interact in a courtroom setting. Both the animals and people benefit.”
Now that his Capstone project is done, Drew plans to travel again—this time to the Fifth Annual Psychology One Conference at Stanford University, in July. He and Jamie will present “Canines in the Courtroom: Using Current Events to Teach Compassion and Critical Thinking in the College Classroom” in a round-table discussion. The conference’s theme this year is “Teaching Social Justice and Responsibility: Ideas and Actions for the 21st Century.” Drew’s research should fit right in.
Therapy dogs in the courtroom are still a new idea—the earliest documented uses go back to the 1990s—but perhaps by the time Drew is practicing law, Lady’s canine colleagues will be common fixtures in courts across the country.
To learn more about therapy dogs, visit petpartners.org.
“A trained therapy dog has been the most powerful judicial tool in court, and I have the power to confine people to jail and to release them.”