When I took office in January two years ago, one of the projects that was important for me to initiate was to establish a Courthouse Dog Program in my office and get a Courthouse Facility Dog for the district. Ultimately, I’d like a dog for each of the three offices in my district, but that will require more funds and grants, so we’ve started with one. We have worked with Assistance Dogs of the West and were fortunate that they awarded us a grant for our courthouse dog. It took some time for the right dog to choose us and for the initial training to be completed, but six months ago, Cowboy, a standard poodle joined our team. Cowboy lives with his primary handler Nina Salazar, who also heads up our Pre-Prosecution Diversion Program. Nina has been through training on her own and continues to work with Cowboy, who comes to work with her every day.
Scientific research shows that the presence of dogs reduces stress in humans. In fact, my offices are all dog-friendly. I find that the presence of dogs in our offices contributes to the creation of a calm, happy work environment for the staff, reducing the stress of our stressful work.
Courthouse facility dogs are different than assistance dogs. While there are assistance dogs to aid those who are deaf, or those with mobility problems and seeing eye dogs for example, facility dogs don’t have public access under the 2010 American’s with Disabilities Act because they do not provide assistance to a person with a disability. However, courthouse dogs must pass the same public access tests that assistance dogs do to prove that they can be unobtrusive and well-behaved in public.
Courthouse dogs are trained to work in a variety of environments specific to the judicial system: prosecutors’ offices and courtrooms for example, to provide calm support and a sense of safety to victims and witnesses of traumatic crimes.
Cowboy just spent days supporting a victim in a trial that involved kidnapping, assault and rape. He sat with her through breaks in the trial and right after she testified. At one point during her testimony, the victim broke down while on the stand. When she came out to take a break, she was in tears and right away Cowboy went to her and laid his head in her lap, calming her enough to continue her testimony. While Cowboy’s training is still ongoing, so is the training for our office. Our attorneys and victim advocates are also learning that they need to bring Cowboy and the victims together earlier in the process so that Cowboy will have established a relationship with the victim.
One of our judges and many of the defense attorneys have welcomed this program and Cowboy wholeheartedly. Some are still coming around. Sometimes people are concerned about dog hair or the potential for mess. Cowboy is hypoallergenic, so allergies are not a concern. In general, when people realize the extent of training Cowboy and indeed all service and facility dogs have been through, their concerns are alleviated. The benefit of a legally neutral companion during the prosecution of heinous crimes is primarily to help the most vulnerable traumatized victims and witnesses tell their stories. However, Cowboy is available to any witness who needs him. Cowboy allows victims, children and adults alike to feel as comfortable as possible to tell their stories to a jury and helps reduce the stress and trauma of reliving a horrifying event in order to do so.
The use of courthouse dogs in the United States has grown exponentially since 2003. In New Mexico, there are approximately 13 such working dogs, seven of which are working for district attorney offices. We are happy to be one of them and hope that once everybody becomes comfortable with this new approach, that even those who are unsure, be it defense attorneys or judges and other witnesses, all will see that a courthouse facility dog, in this case Cowboy, is only here to support the victims in the service of the truth so justice prevails.
Barbara Romo is the district attorney for the 13th Judicial District covering Sandoval, Valencia and Cibola Counties. Cowboy will be 2 years old in May and joined the 13th DA as our court dog in September 2022.