Making the justice system more trauma sensitive, one dog at a time.

Our Purpose

The purpose of Justice Facility Dogs Australia™ is to assist agencies and individuals across Australia who are interested in starting their own Justice Facility Dog program, promote the use of the best practice model, share practices, policies and procedures with other agencies, provide education and advocacy across Australia, mentor and support new handler teams and work with accredited training schools to ensure the availability of dogs.

Justice Facility Dogs Australia works collaboratively with their Justice Facility Dog counterparts internationally including in Canada, the United Kingdom and the USA.

What is a Justice Facility Dog?

A Justice Facility Dog is a dog that has been trained and provided by an assistance dogs school accredited by Assistance Dogs International or the International Guide Dog Federation.

The dogs are purpose bred and selected for this role based on their temperament, resilience, sociability, tolerance, patience and low reactivity. They are trained by professional handlers for approximately 2 years and must pass the Assistance dogs International public access test before they graduate, as well as successfully passing the test every year.

Best Practice Model

Justice Facility Dogs Australia follows and endorses the international best practice established by Courthouse Dogs ® Foundation in the US.  This best practice outlines the type of dog that should be utilized within the criminal justice system and the skills and characteristics that handlers should embody.

  1.  A Facility Dog obtained from an Assistance Dog School that is accredited by Assistance Dogs International, the International Guide Dog Federation or an equivalent accreditation body.
  1. A Handler who is a criminal justice system professional trained in trauma informed practice and who takes a victim-centred approach when working with victims of crime.

When are Justice Facility Dogs used?

Justice Facility Dogs are used in a number of different settings including court waiting rooms, conferences and meetings with the prosecution team, intermediary assessments, court hearings (in remote witness rooms and in the courtroom) with the permission of the court, court orientation visits, promotional work to other agencies, online presence through social media.

When are Justice Facility Dogs not used?

Justice facility dogs wont be used with people who have fears, phobias or allergies to dogs, where there are cultural or religious sensitivities regarding dogs, when other animals are present, with someone who is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, with someone whose behaviour is unpredictable or unsafe, in unsafe environments, in any situation where the health, safety or welfare of the dog may be compromised or when the dog is unwell or requires some downtime.

The science behind why Justice Facility Dogs help

Researchers have learned that dogs can have a positive neurochemical effect on persons affected by trauma.  When an individual’s sympathetic nervous systems are activated by traumatic events they often experience a subsequent surge of the hormone cortisol.  This happens at both the time of the trauma and afterwards when thinking about or recalling the traumatic event eg police interviews, court hearings etc.

While cortisol has positive properties, it also has negative ones. Primarily speaking, cortisol may negatively impact an individual’s cognitive capacities.  This may result a person struggling to communicate, have difficulty remembering and recalling information and trouble with focus and concentration, among other things.

Studies have shown that when a person interacts with a dog or merely looks at a dog, the human body may produce another hormone called oxytocin.  Oxytocin is often referred to as the “love drug” or “love hormone”. It is associated with people feeling comforted, connected to others, cared for, etc. Oxytocin also provides the added benefit of counteracting cortisol and positively impacting individuals cognitive functioning.

So there are good, sound reasons why victims tell us that they “felt better, calmer, less anxious” with the dog by their side.

Evidence based support for the value of justice facility dogs

Whilst there is a lot of anecdotal data supporting the use of justice facility dogs, there is a lack of quantitative data. Many agencies keen to start a program often ask if there is data to support the use of trained dogs in the justice system.

With support from the Churchill Trust, the OPP undertook a formal evaluation of their court dog program in 2023. To reduce the possibility of unintentional bias from an internal evaluation, research and design experts, Paper Giant, were selected to undertake the evaluation. The research surveyed 280 people (including a  large proportion who had lived experience of the court dog program ) and workers in the justice system. Five key stakeholders including judges and victims were also interviewed.

The evaluation found that

  • Court dogs are a valued source of support for victims and witnesses
  • Court dogs save money and promote better access to justice
  • The demand for more dogs is widespread
  • Court dogs do not adversely impact court proceedings

The full report (with statistics) can be found in the Resources page under Studies.

How does a Justice Facility Dog make a difference to a victim?

Outcome Example
A calm stable dog sets a tone for the space when meeting with a witness. You can’t express in words the difference Lucy makes. She just lowers the energy in the room”. (Social worker)
Provides a cathartic and healing touch and connection where human responders cannot “After “B” finished giving evidence today, she spoke about how she had become a bit teary during a break and was trying to re-focus herself as she didn’t want the defence to see her crying when the evidence resumed. Lucy got closer to her and licked the tear that had rolled down her face. “B” said she felt instantly better and was able to get through the rest of the evidence.” (Solicitor)
Normalises traumatic situations “Lucy’s snoring brought me back into the present and I really liked it.” (adult witness)
Can calm people when they are agitated, reduce anxiety and extreme emotions “She has totally changed how I feel. I was anxious and now I am relaxed and happy. I have forgotten where I am.”
Can assist people who are struggling to talk and tell their story I commenced the VARE* with Mr 5 year old and he shut down when the topic of the offending came up. He said “I do not want to talk anymore” put his head down and sat back in the chair. I asked him if we should see if Lucy would come in and his head nodded. Mr 5 year old held my hand as we walked out to you and you passed the lead to Mr 5 year old. He walked Lucy back into the VARE room sat down and did not let go of the lead and was squeezing so tightly. Mr 5 year old patted Lucy then sat back down on the chair and shortly after he talked and disclosed. He held the lead so tight like he was connected to Lucy. (Detective) *VARE – Video and Recorded Evidence
Help to draw out healthy, positive emotions “Lucy made me feel calm and safe like I was at home.” (child witness)