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Courtroom dogs, stationed quietly in witness box, ease difficult testimony for victims

10:59 AM, Jul 8, 2013   |    comments
An abuse victim pets Pavlov, the courtroom dog, while she takes a class at the Child Advocacy Center in Charlotte, Tenn. / Jae S. Lee / The Tennessean
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By Quint Qualls, The Tennessean

The young girl was being asked to talk about the severe abuse she suffered.

To get through it, she turned to one of her best friends and biggest supporters, Pavlov, a trained Labrador retriever who works at the Child Advocacy Center in Cheatham County. The dog provides comfort to victims and witnesses during the often-painful court process.

Pavlov joined the staff at the 23rd Judicial District Child Advocacy Center in November 2012 and made his first court appearance in late June. In the courtroom, he comforted an 11-year-old abuse victim while she testified just a few feet away from her alleged abuser.

"When I started asking the victim questions, it was almost an involuntary reaction that she went to pet the dog," said Cheatham County Assistant District Attorney Ray Crouch. "I've never seen anything like it before."

The use of dogs in the courtroom is being pioneered in Tennessee by Pavlov. He is the first dog to be used in a Tennessee courtroom to comfort child victims.

Kim Stringfield-Davis, CAC director and Pavlov's guardian, said the next course of action is to clear up the skepticism of some state judges who do not want to allow dogs into their courtrooms.

"Ultimately, it is up to the judge. It is his courtroom," Stringfield-Davis said. "We are so thankful for Judge (Larry) Wallace and hope others will see the benefit of dogs like Pavlov. It just reduces the trauma the child will experience."

Ellen O'Neill-Stephens, founder of national nonprofit Courthouse Dogs, said defense attorneys often oppose the use of courtroom dogs because it may cause the jury to look more favorably on a witness's testimony.

"If I were a defense attorney, and I'm kind of playing devil's advocate, I could object some solicitation of sorrow or sympathy from the jury," attorney Crouch said.

However, legal precedent generally allows a witness who would otherwise have difficulty testifying the use of a comfort item while in the witness box.

"These dogs are the least prejudicial to the defendant," O'Neill-Stephens said. "These dogs are so well trained. They are able to lie quietly at witnesses' feet and, in most cases, are totally concealed from the jury."

Currently, only 19 states use courtroom dogs, and Tennessee is about to get two more.

O'Neill-Stephens said the child advocacy center in Cookeville is slated to get one in August and Clarksville is on the waiting list.

"Dogs are impartial. They don't care if you're homeless, wealthy or what side of the law you're on," O'Neill-Stephens said. "They are legally neutral."

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