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Dogs May Soon Accompany, Comfort Victims In Las Vegas Courthouses

Rachel Christiansen

We’ve all likely seen service dogs helping their owners in some way or another – walking across a crosswalk, going through an airport or enjoying the park.

But Clark County residents might soon start seeing them in an unlikely place: at court.

The Clark County District Attorney's office is currently seeking grants and other funding sources to obtain specially trained facility dogs that would comfort victims and witnesses of crimes in the courtroom. 

Similar to service dogs, facility dogs are trained to calmly sit, for long periods of time while in court. As many as 35 other states and several other countries already employ the services of these facility dogs. 

The dogs could be in Las Vegas courts anytime between 12 and 24 months, according to a DA official. 

Ellen O’Neill-Stephens is the founder of the Courthouse Dogs Foundation. She told KNPR's State of Nevada that the dogs used in the program are trained from birth to deal with stressful situations, but only about half of all the dogs that go through the training can be used in the program.

O'Neill-Stephens said the dogs are most helpful with the youngest and most vulnerable victims. 

“Where these dogs perform the most remarkable service is when they’re assisting sexually abused children or children who have witnessed very traumatic events,” she said.

The children don't have the vocabulary to explain what happened to them or they're overwhelmed with emotion and so struggle to tell law enforcement what happened. 

O'Neill-Stephens said children will often talk to the dog and tell them their story. 

She said dogs work better than other animals because for thousands of years dogs have been humans first warning system that something is wrong. 

“When we see a dog that is very calm, we get the idea that there is nothing to worry about,” she explained.

O'Neill-Stephens' company actually trains the handlers of the dogs to bring them into court. They are often victim advocates, police detectives or even deputy prosecutors. 

Ellen O'Neill-Stephens, founder, Courthouse Dogs Foundation

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Prior to taking on the role of Broadcast Operations Manager in January 2021, Rachel was the senior producer of KNPR's State of Nevada program for 6 years. She helped compile newscasts and provided coverage for and about the people of Southern Nevada, as well as major events such as the October 1 shooting on the Las Vegas strip, protests of racial injustice, elections and more. Rachel graduated with a bachelor's degree of journalism and mass communications from New Mexico State University.