Bill would put more service dogs in courtroom

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Capital News Service
LANSING — Those who are in need of a support dog in court may soon get the opportunity to request one.
A bill introduced by Rep. Tom Barrett, R-Potterville, would permit a witness who is called to testify in court to have a courtroom support dog close by.
This pending legislation is progress for those who have any type of service, therapy or facility dog, service dog, advocates say.
“Especially for those with really bad anxiety, the comfort of being able to have that animal there to be able to comfort them is great,” said Cynthia Smith, owner of Michigan Service Dogs, LLC.
In Michigan, only two dogs are accredited. Both come from the K-9 Companion program, which trains these dogs to comfort those who are testifying or going through a forensic interview in their respective courtrooms.
One of the two dogs, handled by Laurie LaCross, victim-witness coordinator at Leelanau County Prosecutor’s Office, comforts any type of witness while the other dog is used for sexual assault services in Calhoun County.
LaCross’ facility dog, Gunther, has been by her side since May 2015.
“He’s down at your feet for hours and doesn’t move or bark or disrupt anything,” she said. “There’s just a lot of training involved.”
Not all dogs who start the training are able to finish.  “And with the other dogs that are released, there’s a reason they are released. They may be mellow, but they might have other distractions. There has been some work to formalize some type of accredited facility dog to be in the courtrooms,” LaCross said.
LaCross said the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys feel that accredited facility dogs that are professionally trained should be allowed in the courtroom, so she hopes this bill will help improve the use and accessibility of dogs in the courtroom.
Studies have shown that having a dog in stressful situations severely decreases anxiety, Smith said.
“So that would be huge for those who have to testify, especially in tense situations when what you’re testifying isn’t necessarily pleasant,” she said.
For Corey Galesk, owner of Blue Cord Service Dogs in St. Johns, he rarely has any issues taking his dog, which he uses to help his PTSD, in public.
“When I do have problems, I usually educate them on the law, and it’s dropped right then and there,” he said. “There are a few people that are against having a dog out in public. No matter what, you’re always going to get that one person in the grocery store that’s glaring at you.”
Unfortunately for handlers of service dogs, they won’t be able to use their own dog in court, as various agencies will be the only authorized distributors of service dogs in court, and they must receive approval from their participating prosecutor’s office.
The bill is now pending in the House Judiciary Committee.

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