- Associated Press - Saturday, March 26, 2016

LAS VEGAS (AP) - Dogs trained to comfort witnesses in court are becoming more widespread and could be headed for Clark County.

The Clark County District Attorney’s office is exploring whether the dogs can be used in its legal system, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported (http://bit.ly/1RGd1fI).

Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson said it could take a year to get a dog into the Regional Justice Center.

“It’s all about victims,” Wolfson said. “It’s about making victims more comfortable. And it’s also about seeking the truth.”

The dogs would be a helpful addition to the eight advocates for victims and witnesses in the Clark County District Attorney’s Office, Wolfson said.

“Even the judges and the prosecutors and the defense lawyers are more relaxed with the presence of these facility dogs in and about the courtroom,” he said. “We as lawyers become somewhat immune sometimes to the trauma that people go through just walking in this building, let alone being the victim in a case and having to see the perpetrator in the same room. It’s very traumatic.”

Facility dogs are trained to quietly sit or lie down next to witnesses for extended periods of time. More than half of states nationally use facility dogs in legal capacities.

Dogs are typically brought into courtrooms when jurors are not present and stay hidden to avoid influencing verdicts.

California, Connecticut, Florida, New York, Ohio and Washington appellate courts have affirmed the use of facility dogs. Arkansas and Illinois lawmakers approved the use of dogs to help child witnesses during criminal proceedings.

“Really what the dogs are about: They make it easier for traumatized people to describe what happened,” said Ellen O’Neill-Stephens of the Bellevue, Washington, nonprofit organization Courthouse Dogs Foundation. “They facilitate the fact-finding process at trial.”

The former Seattle-area prosecutor said there is a big difference between victim advocates and dogs.

“Humans have a special bond with dogs that they don’t have with other humans,” O’Neill-Stephens said. “Dogs are very nonjudgmental, and that’s very important for a person who has been victimized.”

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Information from: Las Vegas Review-Journal, http://www.lvrj.com

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