Why are there dogs at court?


If you go to court in NSW for the first time, you might be surprised to see teams of dogs inside the building. These are therapy dogs, which support victims of crime while they attend court. Court proceedings can be intimidating and emotionally draining, so these cute canines provide some much-needed affection to reduce stress and help people feel more relaxed.

Which courts do dogs attend?

The dogs are provided by a community-based initiative called the Canine Court Companion Program (CCCP). Guide Dogs NSW/ACT spearheads the campaign, which is supported by the NSW Department of Justice (Victim Services). Dogs attend courts in Burwood, Campbelltown, Gosford, Goulburn, Lismore, Manly, Nowra, Orange, Sutherland, and Wagga Wagga.

Therapy dogs typically attend court four mornings a week, for 90 minutes at a time. The CCCP teams rotate through the different courts, however, the teams can receive special requests from police officers or court professionals if someone is experiencing high levels of anxiety and could benefit from a furry friend. They’re found in publicly accessible areas, such as the foyer.

What’s the benefit of having dogs at court?

Data from Guide Dogs NSW/ACT indicates that 96 per cent of people who engage with therapy dogs had a positive experience. Interactions are proven to have calming effects, such as lowering heart rate and improving mental clarity. Who can resist a smiling face? Most therapy dogs are Labradors, which are known for their gentle, intelligent and kind natures. They provide non-judgemental support and a welcome distraction between court sessions. 

Victims and witnesses of crime often have to talk about difficult things while they’re in court, such as sexual assaults or domestic violence. They may also be living with trauma. Therapy dogs respond to emotional signals, such as crying or trembling, and offer support. They can take up to two years to train, which means they’re very well socialised and well behaved. Of course, personality is very important too. Not every dog is suitable for this kind of work.

What do therapy dogs do when they’re not in court?

Therapy dogs live with volunteer hosts, who train to become therapy dog handlers. Once the orange vest comes off, they’re allowed to run, sniff, and play just like any other dogs. 

Are therapy dogs the same as guide dogs?

When you attend court, you might also see guide dogs. Guide Dogs NSW/ACT organises both programs, but there are some important differences between guide dogs and therapy dogs.

Guide dogs are trained to help people with low vision or blindness. They wear distinctive harnesses and it’s very important not to touch them while they’re working. This could distract them, which could pose a risk to the health and safety of the person they’re helping.

Therapy dogs, on the other hand, are trained to provide comfort and affection for people experiencing high levels of anxiety. That means people are encouraged to pat, hug, and play with them. They wear an orange therapy dog vest and are often sporting a wagging tail.

The next time you see a therapy dog at court, don’t hesitate to go up and say hello.