A few days ago, I was walking towards a courtroom in the Bucks County Justice Center when, to my surprise, I was greeted by a friendly, happy dog, along with its handler. I’ve been working in Bucks County for a few years now and I’ve never been greeted by a dog in any courtroom. So, of course, I had to find out what was going on and where this dog came from. As it turned out, this dog was part of the Roxy Reading Therapy Dogs program (RRTD), an organization whose mission it is to provide comfort to children and to enhance the experience of learning. The dogs come to court to provide comfort to children who have to present in dependency court.
Dependency court is an incredibly stressful place for an adult to be, let alone a child. Bucks County Court of Common Pleas Judge Robert J. Mellon recognized this issue and decided that therapy dogs may help to lessen that stress. Scientific research shows that blood pressure goes down and people become less stressed when they simply pet a dog. These positive side effects can occur after interacting with a dog for as little as five minutes. Because of these beneficial effects, Judge Mellon knew that comfort dogs likely would be helpful in dependency court and set up this Bucks County program with the Roxy Reading Therapy Dogs organization.
The way the program works is that one team (human and dog) comes to dependency court and divides its time between everyone present. Everyone, adults and children, is given the opportunity to visit with the dog. If the children are going to testify or speak with the judge in chambers, the dog can accompany them to make them more comfortable. The total length of time for these visits is one hour, as a longer period of time is considered to be too taxing for the dogs.
The positive effects of this program have been overwhelming. For example, a little girl was too traumatized to speak with the judge, but, with the help of the therapy dog, she managed to answer the judge’s questions. One teenager was simply unwilling to answer any questions. However, while petting the therapy dog, the teenager broke down and revealed critical information about her situation. The calming effect these therapy dogs have on children has been of great assistance to the judges in gathering accurate information to resolve the situations.
Currently, the Bucks County courthouse program involves more than 30 therapy dogs of differing breeds and sizes. One day, a miniature poodle might be outside the courtroom and the next day, it might be a Newfoundland. These dogs and their human partners have passed the Canine Good Citizen Test and the Therapy Dog Certification Test, and are, therefore, well prepared to interact with the children in these environments.
Now, I am so glad I ran into that dog outside the courtroom because it gave me the opportunity to learn about this amazing program. These therapy dogs have been of great assistance in lowering the stress in dependency court, which has led to a better environment and, thereby, more accurate results. I know that the next time I pet a dog, I won’t take the comfort I receive for granted.