Professor Conor O’Mahony, School of Law, University College Cork and Government of Ireland Special Rapporteur on Child Protection

It is well recognised that people who experience sexual abuse are exposed to trauma at two levels: the initial trauma associated with the abuse itself, and the potential re-traumatisation associated with disclosing that abuse and navigating the process of reporting it to police and/or child protection services. Reporting the abuse involves re-living painful memories during the course of investigations that may include any or all of interviews, forensic examinations and court testimony.

In recognition of the potential for re-traumatisation, national and international law, policy and practice has recently moved to implement measures aimed at mitigating this risk, including the EU Victims’ Rights Directive (as implemented in Ireland in the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Act 2017) and the establishment of the Barnahus/Onehouse project, which aims to provide a single, child-friendly location where examinations and interviews can take place and avoid subjecting children to repeated examinations and interviews in multiple locations.

Less well known in Europe is the use of facility dogs as means of mitigating trauma. The Courthouse Dogs Foundation in Seattle, Washington, has pioneered the use of specially trained dogs who accompany sexual abuse survivors during their police interview, forensic examination and courtroom testimony. The concept builds on the positive experience of the use of therapy dogs as a means of reducing stress in a range of other situations, including university students preparing for exams; children with disabilities; and people undergoing psychiatric treatment.

In addition to the risk of re-traumatisation, children who have suffered the trauma of sexual abuse typically struggle to share details of their experiences with others and are likely to mistrust adults, which can hinder communication. Facility dogs can help to overcome both the risk of re-traumatisation and the barriers to effective communication. The presence of a facility dog accompanying the child leads to decreased biological stress indicators. The dog provides comfort and assists a child witness to remain calm so that they can cognitively process and respond to the questions. The animal can provide a bridge between a child and a social worker during questioning about a traumatic event. This increased sense of comfort leads to higher levels of social interaction and a safer environment for disclosures to take place. Dogs can help make the experience of forensic interviews less stressful not only for the child, but also the interviewer, judge, jury, clerks, prosecutors and defence counsel, witnesses and observers.

Victim Support Europe is currently leading a consortium called FYDO – Facility Dogs in Europe. The FYDO project, which is funded by the European Union’s Justice Programme (2014-2020), will pilot the use of facility dogs in Belgium, France and Italy. Researchers at the School of Law in University College Cork will work with the victim support organisations in the consortium to assess the effectiveness of facility dogs in mitigating the risk of re-traumatisation for people who have experienced sexual abuse. Victims and witnesses of other crimes and of domestic violence will also be included in the project, which will extend its scope beyond the experience in North America.

Facility dogs have not yet been introduced in Ireland, but the development of the Barnahus/Onehouse project offers the perfect opportunity to do so. While the Barnahus model is internationally recognised as best practice in the field, no country has yet combined the benefits of the Barnahus model with the use of facility dogs. Ireland has an opportunity to become a world leader in meeting the needs of people who have experienced sexual abuse by incorporating facility dogs into the Barnahus/Onehouse project and documenting the resulting synergies.