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How these 87 specially trained dogs are helping dig up the truth in courtrooms across the country

Everyone deserves to be heard, and these dogs are helping some witnesses find their voices.

How these 87 specially trained dogs are helping dig up the truth in courtrooms across the country

In 2014, three young children were removed from their Ohio home after suffering unspeakable acts of abuse.

The kids were so traumatized, it took them months to even begin to open up to investigators about what had happened to them. When it came time to go to court, two of them had to testify from a separate room because facing their attackers was just too traumatic.

Sadly, this is all too common.


Research focusing on sexual abuse shows that testifying in court can actually amplify trauma for young victims, yet so many are forced to take the stand regardless.

This is a huge problem. The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution gives defendants the right to confront their accusers in court. And it's a really, really tough thing to reconcile. In America, you're innocent until proven guilty, and you deserve a fair shake in court.

But at what cost? How can we make sure our trials are fair and justice is served without putting victims through such an awful emotional ordeal?

Ellen O'Neill Stephens and Celeste Walsen think they have the answer: dogs in the courtroom to comfort witnesses.

All photos courtesy of Ellen and Celeste of Courthouse Dogs.

Ellen, a retired prosecutor, and Celeste, a veterinary doctor, run Courthouse Dogs, an organization that advocates for more dogs in the criminal justice process. And not just in the courtroom, either, but also in child advocacy centers and during prosecutor interviews as well.

If you ask me, more dogs is always a good thing — no matter the situation.

But Ellen and Celeste actually have some excellent evidence behind why we need them in court.

Ellen told Upworthy, "When a person is reliving a traumatic event, they experience physiological reactions similar to what they had when the event was taking place."

"This adversarial system [of testifying in front of your attacker] is brutal," she added. "A lot of people come out damaged by it."

The dogs provide a calming presence, whether they're curled up on the couch with a child as he or she gets interviewed by a prosecutor or sleeping peacefully at the feet of a witness in the witness box.

Celeste says that because of the longstanding relationship between humans and dogs, "we count on dogs to tell us when there's a bad guy around." So when we're in the presence of a relaxed dog, it makes us feel that we're in a safe place, which can lower our blood pressure and reduce anxiety.

These are no ordinary dogs. They undergo years of training, and only the best of the best ever make it to the big show.

Unlike therapy dogs, who are regular dogs who have completed some basic coursework, courtroom facility dogs are raised for this kind of work from the get-go. Trainers start by introducing teeny, tiny bits of stress to the young dogs — like putting them on a cold metal surface — and then picking them up and soothing them with cuddles.

By the time they're grown, the dogs are practically immune to chaos and high-stress situations.

It takes about two years of this kind of training before the dogs are deployed to a prosecutor's office or other justice outfit, where they then work full-time defusing tense environments and putting witnesses at ease.

Right now, according to Ellen and Celeste, there are about 87 dogs working in some capacity in 28 states, mostly Labradors or golden retrievers, since they look so dang friendly and have calm temperaments. But the program is starting to gain worldwide traction, with dogs now in places like Chile and Canada.

Courtroom dogs can make victims feel safe, but the real purpose of the program is to help us get to the truth.

Ellen and Celeste told us their vision is to one day see these dogs available to anyone who's been traumatized by crime, old or young, male or female, innocent ... or even guilty.

"I used to think, when I went into the courtroom, I was supposed to make the witnesses squirm, uncomfortable, so they'd somehow blurt out the truth," Ellen said. "But now I'm telling judges, that technique doesn't work."

They told me that young victims will often shut down during interviews, especially because their parents often can't be there. Bring in a dog, though, and they'll start to pet it and often slowly start to relax and start talking.

Courthouse Dogs wants to have canines in interview rooms and courthouses all over the world so people, even defendants, feel comfortable enough to tell their version of the story.

"I think it's revolutionizing this process," Ellen said. "I'm fairly confident this practice is here to stay and it will only grow."

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Marine veteran Paul Coppola is a wonderful example of the transformational power of service dogs.

Ten years ago, he was rocked by two explosions in an attack that took the lives of 17 Marines in Afghanistan. The attack left Coppola with traumatic brain injury, PTSD, and an injured back.

Coppola didn't think his struggles warranted a service dog but after prodding from his wife, he was paired with Dobby, a four-year-old black Lab mix trained by veteran organization Operation Delta Dog.

Dobby and Paul soon became best friends and partners in life.

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via © Jakub Gojda/Animal Friends Comedy Pet Photo Awards 2021 and © Zoe Ross /Animal Friends Comedy Pet Photo Awards 2021

Two of the winners of the Comedy Pet Photo Awards.

A few weeks ago, Upworthy shared the hilarious winners of the 2021 Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards and the winner was a well-timed shot of a monkey who appears to have hurt the family jewels on a suspension wire. (Don't worry folks, no monkeys were harmed for the awards.)

The awards were created six years ago by Tom Sullam and Paul Joynson-Hicks to promote positive awareness of animal welfare issues. The competition has been so successful, the duo decided to branch out and create the Comedy Pet Photo Awards, where photographers can submit pictures of their furry friends for a £2,000 ($2650) prize.

Donations generated by the competition go to Animal Support Angels, an animal welfare charity in the U.K.

This year's winner is Zoe Ross for "Whizz Pop," a photo of her labrador puppy Pepper who appears to be tooting bubbles.

“We never ever thought that we would win but entered the competition because we loved the idea of helping a charity just by sending in a funny photo of Pepper," Ross said in a statement. "She is such a little monkey, and very proud of herself, bringing in items from the garden and parading past you until you notice her. She is the happiest puppy we’ve ever known and completely loved to pieces.”

Here are the rest of the winners of the 2021 Comedy Pet Photo Awards.

Overall Winner: Zoe Ross "Whizz Pop," Penkridge, U.K.

© Zoe Ross /Animal Friends Comedy Pet Photo Awards 2021

Did this puppy swallow a bubble?

Best Dog Category: Carmen Cromer "Jurassic Bark," Pittsboro, North Carolina

© Carmen Cromer/Animal Friends Comedy Pet Photo Awards 2021

"My golden retriever, Clementine, loves to stick her face in front of the hose while I water the plants. Her expression in this photo made me think of a tyrannosaurus rex, hence the title, "Jurassic Bark." Duh nuh nuuuh nuhnuh, duh nuh nuuuh nuh nuh, dun duh duuuh nuh nuh nuh nUUUUUUhhhh." – Carmen Cromer

Best Cat Category: Kathrynn Trott "Photobomb," Ystradgynlais, U.K.

© Kathrynn Trott/Animal Friends Comedy Pet Photo Awards 2021

Jeff stealing the limelight from his brother Jaffa.

Best Horse Category: Mary Ellis, "I Said 'Good Morning,'" Platte River State Park, Nebraska

© Mary Ellis/Animal Friends Comedy Pet Photo Awards 2021

"I like to visit the stable horses before I begin my hike at the State Park. This is the reply I received when I said 'Good morning.'" – Mary Ellis

All Other Creatures Category: Sophie Bonnefoi, "The Eureka Moment," Oxford, U.K.

© Sophie Bonnefoi/Animal Friends Comedy Pet Photo Awards 2021

"Cutie and Speedy are two chicks hatched from eggs placed in an incubator at home in August 2020. They spent their first few weeks indoors. In the photo, they are just over two weeks old. They were curious about everything. This is the day they discovered their own shadow. It was hilarious to see them wondering and exploring that 'dark thing' that was moving with them!" – Sophie Bonnefoi

Junior Category: Suzi Lonergan, "Sit!" Pacific Palisades, California

© Suzi Lonergan/Animal Friends Comedy Pet Photo Awards 2021

"Our granddaughter gave the command to sit. Beau is very obedient." – Suzi Lonergan

Pets Who Look Like Their Owners Category: Jakub Gojda, "That Was a Good One!" Czech Republic

© Jakub Gojda/Animal Friends Comedy Pet Photo Awards 2021

"This photo was taken by accident during the photography of my ex-girlfriend with her beloved mare. For this cheerful moment, I thank the fly that sat on the horse's nose and he instinctively shook his head." – Jakub Gojda.

Highly Commended: Chloe Beck, "Hugo the Photobomber," Walsall, U.K.

© Chloe Beck/Animal Friends Comedy Pet Photo Awards 2021

"This is my best friend Faith, her husband Alex, and their cheeky Sproodle, Hugo. Faith wanted a photograph to mark a special occasion—her first outing after shielding at home for 14 months. Hugo jumped into the frame at just the right moment!" – Chloe Beck

Highly Commended: Luke O'Brien, "Mumford and Chum," Coventry, U.K.

© Luke O'Brien/Animal Friends Comedy Pet Photo Awards 2021

"Losing the opportunity to play with my human bandmates during lockdown, Flint, my rescue dog, soon taught me that we didn't just have sharp bones in common, but musical ones, too. He soon became the perfect substitute for a collaborative stomp up at home, so much so that we felt we deserved our own band name (Muttford and Chum). With my camera set up remotely during this shoot, I think it's fair to say that the image is proof that his conviction as a performer matches my own." – Luke O'Brien.

Highly Commended: Kathryn Clark, "Wine Time," Cichester, U.K.

© Kathryn Clark/Animal Friends Comedy Pet Photo Awards 2021

"It's that time of day again! Little Blue enjoys it almost as much as me." – Kathryn Clark.

Highly Commended: Diana Jill Mehner, "Crazy in Love With Fall," Paderborn, Germany

© Diana Jill Mehner/Animal Friends Comedy Pet Photo Awards 2021

"This is Leia. As you can see, she definitely loves playing with all the leaves in autumn. It was really tricky to take this picture because you never know what the dog is going to do next." – Diana Jill Mehner.

Highly Commended: Christine Johnson, "Boing," Crosby Beach, U.K.

© Christine Johnson/Animal Friends Comedy Pet Photo Awards 2021

"I was busy playing with my dog on the beach and this dog came to play. I liked the shapes he was making in the air." – Christine Johnson

Highly Commended: Manel Subirats Ferrer, "Ostrich Style," Platja del Prat de Llobregat, Spain

© Manel Subirats Ferrer/Animal Friends Comedy Pet Photo Awards 2021

Nuka playing hide and seek at the beach.

Highly Commended: Colin Doyle, "Nosey Neighbor," Bromsgrove, U.K.

© Colin Doyle/Animal Friends Comedy Pet Photo Awards 2021

"According to Ozzy, we need a new fence panel ASAP. He is fed up with Chester our nosy next door neighbor spying on him every time he has a meal." – Colin Doyle.

Highly Commended: Corey Seeman, "A Warm Spot on a Cold Day," Michigan

© Corey Seeman/Animal Friends Comedy Pet Photo Awards 2021

"Two of the morning regulars at the dog park are Gary (hound mix with the jacket) and Kona, one of the most chill dogs ever." – Corey Seeman.

Highly Commended: Lucy Slater, "So What?" San Diego, California

© Lucy Slater/Animal Friends Comedy Pet Photo Awards 2021

"This is how I like to sit!" – Vincent the cat

Highly Commended: Mollie Cheary, "Photobomb," Poole, U.K.

© Mollie Cheary/Animal Friends Comedy Pet Photo Awards 2021

"Bailey was so excited to see her friends, she couldn't sit still for a photo!" – Mollie Cheary

Peet Montzingo following his mom around with a trombone is delightful family entertainment.

Peet Montzingo and his mom have the most delightful relationship, as evidenced by their joint videos on Montzingo's social media platforms. And one viral video sums up the sort of fun Montzingo and his unique family engage in.

The video is a compilation of clips of Montzingo following his mom around with a trombone, making silly sound effects as she goes about doing chores and normal daily life things. It's simple and silly, which is what makes it so wholesome. People can't get enough of their gentle bantering.

Watch:

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Dolly Parton was the picture of grace in her 1977 interview with Barbara Walters.

Dolly Parton is a beloved icon whose appeal somehow bridges a diverse audience. Even people who aren't big fans of her music admire her for her kindness, philanthropy and unflappability.

Barbara Walters is a now-retired broadcast journalist who gained international fame for her candid interviews with well-known figures. Though she was renowned for her interview techniques and willingness to ask tough questions, sometimes her questions could be somewhat tactless.

Put those two together 44 years ago and you get a shining example of Parton's grace and wit in the face of tasteless questions about her looks, her breasts and criticisms lobbed at her. Parton has always been who she is and portrayed the outward appearances she wants to portray, and she calmly and deftly navigates Walters' patronizing line of questioning with impressive poise.

Watch:

So much of Barbara Walters' commentary and questioning comes across as condescending and judgmental, but Dolly Parton transforms that negativity into a positive portrayal of who she is, where she's from and what she's all about.

When Walters told her she was beautiful and didn't need the wig and the make-up and the outrageous clothes, Parton told her it was a choice she's making. “I don’t like to be like everybody else," she said. “I would never stoop so low to be fashionable, that’s the easiest thing in the world to do.

"I'm very real as far as my outlook on life and the way I care about people and the way I care about myself and the things I care about. I just chose to do this, and show business is a money-making joke and I've just always liked telling jokes," she added.

Walters asked her if she ever feels that she is a joke, since people make fun of her.

“Oh I know they make fun of me, but all these years the people have thought the joke was on me, but it’s actually on them,” said Parton. “I am sure of myself as a person. I am sure of my talent. I’m sure of my love for life and that sort of thing. I am very content, I like the kind of person that I am. So, I can afford to piddle around and do-diddle around with makeup and clothes and stuff because I am secure with myself.”

The questions about Parton's breasts were particularly tacky, especially by today's standards. But Parton handled it all beautifully. Her responses are a masterclass in grace and her self-assurance is a refreshing model for us all—especially now that we can see how she has stayed true to herself all these years. Anyone who has ever wondered why Dolly Parton's appearance is what it is will learn a lot from this interview, and anyone who wants to learn how to maintain dignity and class in the face of inconsideration will learn a lot as well.