Court Support Dog NJC
Pic: the adorable River, Court Support Dog

After twelve weeks of cuddles, pats, and waggy tails River the court support dog has left the building.

From April to July this year, River the Labrador, a highly trained support dog, worked at the NJC to test the merits of providing family violence victim-survivors with canine companionship to alleviate stress and anxiety while at court.  River was joined by her handler, Tessa Stow founder of K9 support and NJC's pilot service provider.

Over the course of the pilot, access to River was extended to all clients, including respondents in matters where an applicant was appearing online and thus not at the court in person.

While we are now evaluating the pilot to determine if and how we can provide a court support dog program ongoing, client feedback suggests the presence of four-legged companionship has considerable therapeutic benefits.

Attending court is inherently stressful, and people often arrive feeling worried and nervous. One victim-survivor reported that she arrived at court so anxious it caused her physical pain but, she said, within ten minutes of spending time with River the pain had gone.

“Amazing! This was a positive, all-new experience for me. My mind was focused on positive things”, said the client. (We won't identify the clients who participated and provided feedback for privacy and safety reasons).

We also measured whether a court support dog could improve the general ambience of the court building, a calm and welcoming environment being a foundation to best-practice justice. Early measures are positive, with one client reporting that it was a “beautiful surprise” to see River in the foyer.  “[It was] a relief. It was amazing. This should be available in other public spaces [such as] hospitals.”

This sentiment was echoed with another client reporting that “it felt good seeing [River] when I walked in. It is a nice comforting environment. Court can be stark. It’s great to get some support by touching River.”

Magistrate and Court Support Dog NJC

The pilot was, of course, conducted during a pandemic. However, while many victim-survivors opted to appear in court remotely (online) the numbers of clients engaging with River remained steady.  

While not formally an evaluation measure, we also noted that staff revelled in River’s company, a good reminder that engineering a calm, supportive environment is as good for busy staff as it is for their anxious clients.

To a large degree, the findings come as no surprise. Support dogs embedded in courts around Australian and abroad are working wonders, and the therapeutic benefits of canine company are widely documented (External link).

We thank NJC staff for their support, including managing to restrain themselves when River needed downtime on her blanky.

The Neighbourhood Justice Centre extends its sincere thanks to Tessa Stow for participating in this pilot, at times under trying conditions, and for sharing her wisdom and expertise with us.

River, thank you for being a quiet hero and fabulous colleague.

And finally, we thank the clients who gave their time to provide us with their insights and thoughts.

Stay tuned for updates.

Pic above: River on duty. Pic left: Magistrate Noreen Toohey and her new best friend.