“Pawsitive” Directions: An Update on Dogs Supporting Victims of Crime

By Susan McDonald and Naythan Poulin

In a previous issue of the Victims of Crime Research Digest, McDonald and Rooney (2014) explored the potential benefits of support dogs in various criminal justice settings, such as during forensic interviews with law enforcement or in preparation for court with Crown prosecutors. In particular,the authors (2014, p.18) noted that there were “no specific studies on support dogs working with victim services inside or out of the courtroom.” Since 2014, a few empirical studies have been undertaken that examine the impact of animals in and outside of the courtroom.Footnote 1

This article begins by defining relevant terminology for support dogs and by explaining the roles they can play in the criminal justice system. The article then provides an overview of recent empirical social science studies that outline the benefits of dogs in courtrooms and legal processes. The article also includes an overview of the case law that supports and establishes the role of dogs for vulnerable witnesses, and it briefly discusses standards, gaps in research, and outstanding questions.

Language matters: defining service, therapy and facility dogs

Dogs have been trained to assist human beings for decades; they may assist people with disabilities, participate in law enforcement endeavours or provide emotional support. Today, animals assisting human beings is fairly common, but confusion persists regarding their titles and roles.

A service dog is not a pet; it is a working animal specially trained to assist a person with a disability.Footnote 2 In Canada, the legal status of a service dog is regulated by provincial and territorial governments.Footnote 3 The Government of Canada is responsible for certain modes of transportation, and according to the Accessible Transportation for Persons with Disabilities Regulations (ATPDR)Footnote 4 a service dog in Canada: has been individually trained by an organization or person specializing in service dog training; and performs a task to assist a person with a disability with a need related to their disability.

Alternatively, therapy or emotional support animals (ESAs) are used to comfort and nurture. It is important to note that therapy dogs and ESAs may not have received any specific training and could be a personal pet. The titles therapy dog or ESA are not legally recognized in Canada, and therefore, these dogs may have limited access to public spaces (Grimm 2013; Walsh et al. 2018). Some American legal experts believe that explicit reference to a therapy dog in court can produce a bias and prejudicial effect and cause a jury to sympathize with a victim/witness who testifies with a dog (Grimm 2013).

Another related term is facility dog: “a dog that, directed by qualified staff within a designated facility, utilizes its special skills and training in animal-assisted interventions to help providers achieve specific treatment or program goals.”Footnote 5 Facility dogs are trained to assist vulnerable witnesses; they may be housed on-site and cared for by staff, or live with their primary handlersFootnote 6 (Walsh et al. 2018). Specifically, facility dogs are trained to assist victims and other vulnerable witnesses experiencing heightened anxiety caused by trauma.

Although similar to a therapy dog, which may visit patients or residents at one or more facilities accompanied by its handler for a few hours a week, a facility dog lives full-time at a facility under the care and supervision of a staff member.Footnote 7 Facility dogs and therapy dogs or ESAs can detect human stress and provide support by laying their heads on the laps of victims and other vulnerable witnesses (Mariani 2020).

Facility dogs are more common in the criminal justice system of the US than in other countries (e.g. the United Kingdom and Canada) and most US states require facility dogs to receive at least two years of training from an organization such as Assistance Dogs International or one of their affiliate programs (Mariani 2020). It is important to note that the use and effectiveness of facility dogs in the criminal justice system have been contested. For instance, Walsh et al. (2018) assessed the impact of facility and therapy dogs during forensic interviews, noting that the “differences between facility and therapy dogs may not be evident to children, whose experience may be similar in both cases, having a dog to hold and pet while testifying.” (p.3) Therefore, a therapy dog or ESA may be just as effective as a facility dog in reducing victims’ stress and anxiety when they participate in the criminal justice system.

Most of the academic studies reviewed for this article focus on the impact of dogs on trial proceedings. Dogs, however, are also used to support victims and witnesses at other points, such as in the aftermath of a criminal event or during a forensic interview or medical exam. They can also be used during therapy or counselling. Dog handlers can have various occupations, such as law enforcement personnel, psychologists, forensic interviewers, social workers, and victim advocates (Mariani 2020).

Two other definitions are also helpful. Animal assisted activities (AAA) refers to the provision of general comfort to a victim or witness during sessions with a therapist or forensic interviewer. Animal assisted therapy (AAT) refers to the use of dogs trained for the specific task of interpreting human emotions and actively working to reduce stress, for example during short- and long-term counselling (Grimm 2013).

What we know: Literature on dogs in the criminal justice system

Victims and witnesses may experience further trauma during the various stages of a criminal case. A child victim may be reluctant to talk about physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse due to associated feelings of guilt or shame, or may be afraid to face and/or testify against an accused who may have been a close relative or friend (Pantell et al. 2017). In general, the criminal justice system was not designed with a child’s needs in mind, and every stage — from forensic interview to court preparation to testifying at a preliminary inquiry and trial — can heighten stress and anxiety (Holder 2013; Weems 2013; Nascondiglio 2016). Given the importance of detailed testimony, courts allow children and other vulnerable witnesses to use testimonial aids. Aids vary by jurisdiction; in most US states, a child witness can hold a comfort item such as a stuffed animal. In Canada, vulnerable witnesses may be allowed to testify by closed-circuit video or from behind a screen and accompanied by a support person (see McDonald 2018). More recently, courts have allowed witnesses to be accompanied by dogs while giving testimony. However, no legislation currently governs this practice. And no laws, regulations, policies, standards or case law dictate that dogs used in the Canadian criminal justice system must be facility dogs, therapy dogs or ESAs.

Because the use of dogs to support victims and witnesses in the criminal justice system is relatively new, it is helpful to look back to the introduction of animals to assist humans with their well-being and mental health and the research undertaken in the mental health field. In the 1960s, Dr. Boris Levinson incorporated animals into his therapy sessions and found that the presence of animals helped patients open up and trust him (Levinson 1969). Since Dr. Levinson’s initial study, the use of AAT has expanded beyond clinical and psychological settings. Studies demonstrate that AAT reinforces independence, stimulates awareness and provides support to victims (Sockalingham et al. 2008). Beck (1985) maintains that AAT can aid in treating patients who are traditionally withdrawn or uncooperative when speaking about their trauma. Many studies have since assessed the general psychological and physiological effect of animals on humans. For instance, evidence suggests that the presence of animals helps to relieve symptoms of stress and anxiety by lowering and sustaining a person’s heart rate, blood pressure, breathing and dissociation (Johnson 2010).

In 2012, the Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health (CADTH) conducted a study to determine the beneficial psychological effects of both AAT and AAA with patients experiencing mental health concerns. The purpose was to determine whether dogs and horses alleviated challenges normally associated with depression, anxiety, substance abuse, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), dementia and schizophrenia. The researchers analyzed pre-existing studies that used various methods, scales, and questionnaires, and acknowledged potential gaps in consistency. Overall, the researchers concluded that AAT and AAA improved mental function, quality of life and socialization (CADTH 2012).

What we learn from research on the impact of animals on those experiencing mental health concerns can be applied in a criminal justice system context. McDonald and Rooney (2014, p.19) suggest that the psychological and physiological benefits of dogs on humans “is especially important in the context of supporting victims of crime during the forensic interview or at other key stages in the criminal justice system.” A few studies have evaluated the effect of using support dogs during mock police interviews. In his study, Peters (2017) tested the hypothesis that participants provided support dogs during police interviews would experience significant less anxiety. Forty-five undergraduate students completed a questionnaire prior to entering the interview room, after meeting the officer, and after the police interview. Participants were also fitted with wireless heartrate monitors to track stress and anxiety levels. For the experiment, about half of participants were accompanied by a dog during the interview, while the other half were not. The study found that those accompanied by dogs exhibited significantly lower symptoms of anxiety. During interviews, the heart rate and blood pressure of some participants accompanied by dogs reverted to the levels recorded prior to the interviews (Peters 2017).

Spruin et al. (2020) undertook an empirical study that assessed whether the assistance of a dog enhanced rapport building with children during police interviews and increased their credibility. The study recruited 70 police interviewers in Canada and the United States as participants while using mixed quantitative and qualitative methodologies. Based on rapport and credibility scales, 100% of participants concluded that the presence of a dog created a comfortable environment for rapport-building and enabled witnesses to feel more comfortable. Thematically, participants felt that the assistance of a dog positively altered a child’s emotional state, which enhanced their ability to communicate and disclose traumatic experiences (Spruin et al. 2020).

Some scholars have conducted empirical studies to determine whether the introduction of a facility or therapy dog can alleviate stress for both the child and forensic interviewer. Krause-Parello et al. (2018) studied 24 children undergoing forensic interviews related to allegations of sexual abuse. The study included a group with a dog and a control group without a dog during the interviews. Both self-reporting and stress biomarker (cortisol levels) data were collected from the children before and after interviews. The researchers concluded that those accompanied by a dog experienced significant decreases in stress biomarkers after the interview; the children without a dog in the control group did not experience significant decreases in stress biomarkers. In another study, Walsh et al. (2018) wanted to determine whether the presence of a therapy or facility dog would reduce the symptoms of stress experienced by 230 forensic interviewers. The participants completed voluntary self-assessment surveys about how they were feeling. While 72% of participants agreed that having dogs participate in forensic interviews was a helpful tool, the study was not able to determine whether the presence of a dog helped alleviate stress and anxiety in forensic interviewers.

For many witnesses, the experience of waiting in a room prior to testimony can be stressful. Specifically, not knowing when a witness will testify can heighten feelings of fear and anxiety. Spruin et al. (2019) conducted an experiment to determine whether the presence of a dog in a court waiting room would help reduce fear and anxiety among those waiting to testify in a criminal trial. In the study, researchers recruited 117 participants who completed qualitative interviews and questionnaires. In total, 96% of participants agreed that having a dog in the waiting room created a relaxing effect and contributed towards a positive environment. As one participant noted, “I’m very nervous and scared, I don’t really want to see the defendant. I came to her [therapy dog] immediately, I feel calmer already, it’s amazing what an animal can do” (Spruin et al. 2019, pg. 292). Drawing again on research findings of animals supporting humans in other sectors, Dell et al. (2019) conducted a similar study in hospital emergency rooms in Canada. The results demonstrated an improvement in happiness scores and established that the dogs were able to help relieve patients’ stress and anxiety in distressing situations.

In another study, Spruin et al. (2019) assessed the impact of a therapy dog in providing support to five child victims of sexual abuse who testified during trial proceedings in the UK by conducting in-depth interviews and collecting observational data. The process also incorporated the perspectives of parents and other relatives present to support the child. The first section of the study assessed the physical and emotional impact of a dog on each child prior to testifying in court. The study concluded that the presence of the dog greatly increased feelings of happiness and calmness, and inspired confidence prior to testifying. The mother of a victim reported that since the incident of sexual abuse, her daughter had withdrawn and “doesn’t talk to anyone. [But] her coming here to meet the therapy dog is more interaction than she has had in a long time. This is the only thing that got her out of the house.” Spruin and al. (2019) established that most victims of sexual abuse withdraw from another person’s touch, but dogs make great companions, since they offer a safe outlet to victims who benefit from the emotional and physical support the dogs can provide.

Dogs in court: Legal arguments

The literature on the use of dogs to support victims and witnesses in court is primarily from the US. This section briefly summarizes the relevant arguments made by American legal academics and practitioners. Many of the arguments are not applicable to the Canadian legal context, but are still of interest as policy and practice evolve in this area.

Some American legal experts have argued that permitting a dog to support a witness impedes a defendant’s right to a fair trial, since it could create bias and elicit unwarranted sympathy from jurors, or potentially distract jurors during testimony (Grimm 2013; Bowers 2013; Nascondiglio 2016).

Burd and McQuiston (2019) tested the hypothesis of jury bias by conducting a study that used mock jurors to assess prejudice against a defendant when a child witness held a teddy bear, or there was a dog present, or there was no testimonial aid at all. The study determined that using a dog as a testimonial aid did not distract jurors or significantly change their perception of the defendant. In a Canadian MA thesis, Glazer (2018) asked Canadian legal professionals whether a dog in a court setting could produce bias. The majority of respondents stated that making such an argument would be difficult; one participant claimed that “it would be very difficult for a defence counsel to argue that a child has some kind of unfair advantage […] I think it would be hard pressed to make a valid argument” (pg. 32).

The sixth amendment to the US Constitution includes what is known as the confrontation clause,Footnote 8 which gives an accused the right to confront a witness against him or her in a criminal proceeding. Because of this, US legislation and case law on testimonial aids have developed differently than in Canada. For example, screens and testifying by closed-circuit TV are not used in the USFootnote 9 since a defendant cannot physically face their accuser (Dellinger 2009). American scholars believe that using a dog in court is more beneficial and creates less bias than other testimonial aids. For instance, a dog may be more beneficial than having a support person, since some evidence suggests that a support person may impede the credibility of a child witness. The concern is that a jury may interpret a child looking towards a support person for emotional relief as a source of influence; a support person could be perceived by the jury as coaching what a child witness will and will not say (Holder 2013; Weems 2013).

In the US, the use of dogs as an accommodation in court is also preferred to testimony via closed-circuit pre-recorded testimony, since the jury can observe the victim directly reducing the likelihood that a defendant’s rights would be infringed (Dillinger 2009). Note that there is very little empirical evidence to support these assertions.

In Canada, the relevant legislation and case law differ from those in the US. The Criminal Code explicitly allows a Crown prosecutor and victim/witness to apply to testify behind a screen, with a support person, or via closed-circuit video. When the victim/witness is a child (under the age of 18 years) or has a physical or mental disability, the court shall grant the application.Footnote 10

Case law in Canada

At this time, there is no specific provision in the Criminal Code to permit an application for a dog to support a witness during testimony. When an application has been made, Crown prosecutors have used different provisions in the Criminal Code. In rendering a decision, the court has used specific provisions, such as section 486.1, as well as its general powers to consider the request and make an order. A review of cases across the country shows that the most significant consideration for the court is how the dog will assist in obtaining the best evidence from the witness. That is, does the dog’s presence facilitate a full and candid account from the witness?

There have been several casesFootnote 11 where a dog has been permitted in the courtroom under section 486.1 of the Criminal Code and the dog’s handler is identified as the “support person.” Dallas Mack (2020) provides commentary on a number of these cases which is summarized in the following paragraphs. The author notes that:

Benjamin… clarifies that a support dog can be part of an application under section 486.1 to have a “support person” with a complainant while they testify. In R. v. Pine, the judge while granting a similar application, questioned whether dogs were persons. The approach in Benjamin solves that issue in a reasonable and principled manner. Second, it recognizes the impact of the amendment to this provision and the important influence of… the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights [para.6].

In Levac, the court provides a thorough review of s.486.1 in allowing the dog and its handler as a support person. In the Ontario case of R. v W. (C.),Footnote 12 the Crown applied for the dog to accompany the witness, but not the dog’s handler. The court held that in these circumstances, section 486.1 did not apply as it was restricted to “persons”. Section 13Footnote 13 of the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights provided the court the authority to make the order, although Mack suggests that it is not clear that the section actually does (pg.5).

In Marchand,the Crown brought an application pursuant to section 486.7; the application was unopposed and could have been made under s.486.1, but Mack notes that, “it is not obvious that section 486.7 is the best fit as it requires a finding that the support is necessary for security purposes” (pg.4).

In Roper, the dog did not have a handler, so section 486.1 could not be used and the court relied on its inherent authority to control its proceedings to make such an order and stated:

I note that here the animal is a pet and not a service animal. It has no special training. However, he obediently follows his owner’s commands and will not be obtrusive, despite a lack of formal training. I appreciate that the judge has discretion to manage the conduct of matters in the courtroom. I am allowing the application and exercising my discretion to permit the complainant to have her pet lapdog with her while testifying. I understand the animal will ease her anxiety and assist with her testimony. In the words of s. 486.1 of the Criminal Code, the dog will assist in obtaining a “full and candid account from the witness of the acts complained of.” (para.7)

Importantly, the dog in question was not a service dog or formal support dog, but rather the witness’ pet. Mack notes that, in granting the application, which was unopposed, the court focused on the benefit to the witness and the court, not the “qualifications” of the dog (pg.5).

There were no reported cases where the court denied an application for a dog to support a witness while testifying. The key issue appears to be under what authority the court can make such an order and there seem to be different options, with section 486.1 of the Criminal Code — the use of a support person — being the best fit.


In Canada, there are currently no nationally recognized voluntary or mandatory standards or regulatory bodies governing the use of animals to assist humans.organizations have developed their own standards and undertake training and testing, there are no national or regional oversight bodies. In the spring of 2021, the Canadian Foundation for Animal-Assisted Support Services posted on its website Notices of Intent to develop four voluntary National Standards of Canada (NSCs) for animal assisted services to help protect consumers in this unregulated area. The proposed NSCs would apply to all types of services — therapy, activities, assistance and crisis response. For more information, please see the website.Footnote 14

The need for guidelines and standards extends beyond Canada’s borders. For example, the International Association of Human-Animal Interactions Organizations (IAHAIO)Footnote 15 is creating international guidelines for best practice in Animal Assistance Interventions. Building on the IAHAIO White Paper Definitions for Animal Assisted Intervention and Guidelines for Wellness of Animals Involved (published in 2014 and revised in 2018),Footnote 16 IAHAIO has established an international, multi-disciplinary task force called “Standards of Best Practice in Animal-Assisted Interventions and Animal Welfare”.

Research gaps and outstanding questions

The use of dogs to support victims and witnesses in the criminal justice system is a relatively recent phenomenon. Relevant empirical research is in its infancy, and there are numerous gaps and outstanding questions. For instance, no empirical studies examine the relative merits of the additional training that a facility dog receives in comparison to the training received by a therapy dog or ESA. The study by Spruin et al. (2019) on the effectiveness of dogs during trial focused on therapy dogs rather than facility dogs. When the witness knows the dog, are the results more beneficial than if the witness and dog have only just met? Rigorous Canadian research, with control groups, could also investigate the benefits —and the costs — of using dogs to support witnesses in civil justice matters such as high conflict family law cases.

Much of the existing research has focused on the use of dogs with child victims of sexual abuse, but Spruin et al.’s (2019) study demonstrates that the use of dogs in waiting rooms could also be effective in easing the symptoms of anxiety and stress among adult victims and witnesses. In terms of the developing case law across the country, will applications for the use of support dogs be made under section 486.1 with their handlers? Or will there be forceful arguments supporting other provisions? What practices are in place if someone in the court has allergies or is afraid of dogs? There are still some unexplored areas of research on the benefits of dogs in the criminal justice system.


In conclusion, this article sought to provide an update on the current social science research and case law regarding the use of dogs to support victims and witnesses in the criminal justice system —particularly in Canada, but also in other common law countries. The studies overwhelmingly demonstrate that dogs can alleviate the stress and anxiety commonly experienced by victims and witnesses during the criminal justice process. Studies also show that the use of dogs can lead to more complete and accurate testimony. Hopefully, with more research, the use of dogs to support victims and witnesses will continue to expand in “pawsitive” directions.


Beck, Alan M. 1985. The therapeutic uses of animals, veterinary clinics of North America. Small Animal Practice 15(2).

Cases Referenced

Other cases mentioned in this issue: