DA using dogs to help children on the stand - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

DA using dogs to help children on the stand

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SAN DIEGO (CBS 8) - Testifying in court can be a stressful situation, especially for some of the youngest witnesses. The district attorney's office here in San Diego has a special program to help kids feel safe and comfortable on the stand.

Kiwi is one of eight dogs with the special training necessary to be a San Diego county court dog.

"They have to be friendly, but not overly friendly, not out seeking everyone's attention," trainer Carol Davis said.

Davis says not every dog has the patience to be a court dog, sitting for hours at a child's feet on the witness stand. But those that make the cut make a huge difference.

"Sometimes it's difficult to answer a question. The child can bend down and stroke the dog's back and by the time they lift their head up again, they compose themselves and give a better answer," Davis said.

Before the dogs the district attorney's office tried all kinds of distractions for kids, but they were barking up the wrong tree.

"We used to give them a squeezy ball to hold onto, talk to them about breathing techniques, but often times they're so little and so nervous, they don't remember that," Deputy District Attorney Nicole Rooney said.

Rooney helped bring the program to San Diego, and says the dogs have eased everything about the process, from the nerve wracking time in the hall waiting to testify to actually being on the stand.

"Kids that would otherwise clam up and not know what to do, when they have the dog to pet, are able to talk about things they've never talked about before," she said.

Case law says the dogs can be in court, so prosecutors don't have to worry about convictions being thrown out on appeal, but Rooney says they do tell jurors why the dog is there.

"We don't want them to think the child is disabled or something that might make them more sympathetic," she said.

Our courts request dogs about three times a week, and it usually doesn't take very long before the child forms a special bond with the animal.

"They don't judge you, they don't care what's happened to you, and everybody knows that. Subconsciously or not, you know it and so the dog evokes trust," Davis said.

In the program's eight years, they've never had a problem with a dog in court. In fact, since the dog is pretty much out of sight, most people forget it's there. But every once in a while there's a reminder.

"You don't notice it until they sometimes fall asleep and start snoring," Davis said.

San Diego's court dog program is so successful, they've received calls from courts in Los Angeles and other states asking for information to help them start up a similar program.

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