Therapy dogs ruled out for ACT courts despite NSW success with victims of crime
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Therapy dogs ruled out for ACT courts despite NSW success with victims of crime

The ACT government has ruled out allowing therapy dogs into ACT courts, against the wishes of advocates.

A trial run in NSW saw therapy dogs and their volunteer owners visit Manly Court in Sydney to alleviate the stress felt by victims of crime.

"He brings joy": Delta therapy dogs volunteer Nicci Gradidge with therapy dog Norman.

"He brings joy": Delta therapy dogs volunteer Nicci Gradidge with therapy dog Norman. Credit:Sitthixay Ditthavong

NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman announced an expansion of the NSW program earlier this month, with Goulburn among nine courts set to host Canine Court Companion dogs.

Mr Speakman said the dogs were a "huge hit".

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Delta therapy dogs volunteer Nicci Gradidge with therapy dog Norman.

Delta therapy dogs volunteer Nicci Gradidge with therapy dog Norman. Credit:Sitthixay Ditthavong

"Hundreds of people took part in the trial and every one of them gave therapy dogs the tick of approval. Having a floppy ear to talk to and a friendly paw to hold helps victims and witnesses feel relaxed and more focused. The scientists call it 'the pet effect'.

"One of the unexpected bonuses has been the positive impact the dogs have had on court staff, police and lawyers, who also reported feeling a reduction in stress levels after spending time with the happy hounds," Mr Speakman said.

He said while he "can't possibly bark orders at another government", the pilot program was so well-recieved he would encourage the ACT to trial it.

"I'm happy to discuss the program with my ACT counterpart and to have officials in the NSW Department of Justice co-operate with the ACT government to help bring the comfort of therapy dogs to the nation's capital," Mr Speakman said.

ACT acting Victims of Crime Commissioner Helen Watchirs is strongly supportive of the NSW program.

"Court proceedings can be very stressful and re-traumatising for victims of crime, and the evidence from pilot programs in NSW is that trained therapy dogs can make a huge difference in reducing anxiety and providing comfort for victims giving evidence," Ms Watchirs said.

"There are current obligations under the Discrimination Act 1991 for courts to make reasonable adjustments for people with a disability, and this can extend to assistance animals to reduce anxiety and distress."

Ms Watchirs pointed to a case in ACT courts last year where a child was allowed to have her disability assistance dog accompany her while giving evidence.

She said while the result was pleasing, it took "considerable time and advocacy" to achieve that outcome.

"In my view we can and should go further in facilitating the use of therapy dogs for victims of crime and vulnerable witnesses, taking a proactive approach as has been done in NSW.

"This would greatly benefit individuals and also serves the interests of justice in facilitating accurate testimony by reducing trauma and stress for witnesses."

The Delta Society, who provided volunteers and their trained therapy dogs for the pilot program in Sydney, work in Canberra visiting nursing homes.

Nicci Gradidge and her five-year-old golden retriever Norman visit a nursing home in Canberra every week.

"He brings joy to the older people," Ms Gradidge said.

She said the court therapy program was one she would love to get involved with if it came to Canberra.

"Dogs put people at ease. It makes them completely think of other things, and it settles people. I go out with my dogs all the time and if kids are screaming, they stop when they see the dog. They forget for five minutes.

"It would take their mind off the proceedings going on in court," she said.

But a spokesman for the ACT government said there was no plan to change the policy to allow assistance dogs in courts.

"Assistance dogs are permitted in the courts as required by law, for example animals that support people with disabilities.

"Decisions about animals in an individual case are a matter for the courts and should be made independently by the judge or magistrate," the spokesman said.

Kimberley Le Lievre is the Editor of The Sunday Canberra Times

Michael Inman is a courts reporter for The Canberra Times

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