Are you looking for a legitimate reason to browse adorable dog pictures at work? Well, this blog post might just be what you were looking for! In December 2019, the Golden Retriever “Watson” started his work as a “justice dog” in the German state of Baden-Württemberg as part of a pilot project. Justice dogs are trained therapy dogs that help victims of crime and their relatives deal with stressful situations in the courtroom. In July 2020, Watson was joined by German Shepherd “Al Capone,” who will primarily help with the rehabilitation of criminals, but will also be trained as a victim support dog. Currently, there are four justice dogs in Baden-Württemberg that participate in the pilot project. Courts in the United States have also started allowing “facility dogs” to assist victims of crime.
Since January 2017, victims of crime in Germany have a legal right to professional victim support services for criminal proceedings (psychosocial support). “Victim” is understood in a broad sense to encompass close relatives of the actual victim. (Code of Criminal Procedure, §395, para. 2.) Psychosocial support is “a special type of non-legal support for particularly vulnerable victims before, during, and after the main criminal trial. It includes information and qualified counseling and support for the whole criminal proceedings with the goal to reduce the individual burden of the victim and to avoid secondary victimization.” (PsychPbG, §2.) The psychosocial support persons (victim advocates) must remain neutral and are not allowed to provide legal advice, appraise the facts, or influence the witness or the witness testimony. Victim advocates must be professionally, personally, and interdisciplinarily qualified, meaning they must have a relevant degree and training in psychosocial support; work experience in social pedagogy, social work, pedagogy, or psychology; communication, cooperation, and conflict management abilities; resilience; and basic knowledge in medicine, psychology, victimology, criminology, and law. (PsychPbG, §3.) A victim must request the appointment of a victim advocate from the court and support will be provided free of charge. (Code of Criminal Procedure, §406g, para. 3.)
The justice dogs in Baden-Württemberg that act as victim advocates are part of a unique pilot project. However, victims do not have a legal right to have a justice dog and must petition the court to allow it as an exception. According to the State Ministry of Justice, justice dogs have been requested in 12 cases, mostly involving children and young adults aged between four and 15 years who had to act as witnesses in cases involving violence, abuse, or manslaughter.
The Minister of Justice Guido Wolf stated:
The current demand for “Watson” as a witness support dog in trials in Baden-Württemberg is high. Experiences have been positive. Watson provides noticeable support for child and adolescent victim witnesses as well as people with mental disabilities in a very difficult situation.
Rehabilitation of criminals is another area where the calming influence of dogs can be helpful. Sabine Kubinski from PräventSozial, the non-profit training the therapy dogs and working as victim advocates, explained in an email to me that “dogs act as “door openers”, meaning people who have trust issues open up when dogs are around and do not feel judged. Furthermore, they help with building social skills, among other things.” Al Capone might support other psychosocial training projects in correctional facilities, which have used animal-facilitated interventions before to teach emotional and social competencies.
If the pilot project in Baden-Württemberg is successful, it might be expanded and more victims will be able to cuddle with cute dogs like Watson and Al Capone.