Seeing (And Feeling) the Family Justice System Through the Eyes of the Therapy Dog

On behalf of the BC Family Justice Innovation Lab, I’m lucky enough to be part of a team that is working with families and family-serving agencies and services in Kamloops BC to improve the family justice system. We call the initiative “Pathfinder” and it is a collective of people, organizations and government supported by Access to Justice BC. We are using a human-centred service design approach that tries to see the system from the perspective of the families who are transitioning through separation and divorce. I hope to share more about this fascinating initiative in a future post. For now, I want to share one poignant story.

The focus of our second visit to Kamloops in October 2017 was to hear stories from family members who had or were experiencing separation or divorce and how they interacted with the “justice system”. As one piece of our work we visited the Kamloops courthouse on “family remand day” (one day per week set aside for first appearances in Provincial Court family matters). All parties who commence a family court action are required to attend in person to speak to a judge about their matter. The list can be very long and everyone is required to be there by 9:30am.

We arrived early, before many family members entered the courthouse. A few minutes later, in through the door bounced a beautiful Goldendoodle (“Ollie”[1]) with his handler from the St. John’s Ambulance Therapy Dog Program.

His handler explained that the therapy dogs had been invited into the courthouse on remand day but the program was discontinued because the experience was much too hard on the dogs.

They were hoping to re-introduce the program by having the dogs participate for very short visits (30 – 45 minutes).

Ollie was friendly and excited to be there. He loved being petted and talked to and wagged his tail constantly. Family members began to arrive in the courthouse so Ollie went off eager to do his loving work with families. We observed how eagerly people greeted and interacted with him as he moved through the crowd. We were told that the dogs are trained to head for the exit when they’ve had enough.

35 minutes later my colleague saw the handler and Ollie leaving the courthouse. She said Ollie “drooped”. His initial verve was depleted.

The St. John’s Ambulance therapy dog program is designed to bring “joy and comfort to the sick, lonely and those who need a friendly visit.” The program webpage states:

“The program is growing, boasting 3,354 therapy dog program volunteers and dog teams in 2015 which assisted more than 120,000 clients throughout the year. Therapy dog teams gave more than 230,000 hours of their time visiting hospitals, retirement residences, care facilities, schools and universities. The friendly attention and acceptance of these four-legged volunteers are always greatly appreciated. The program started in June, 1992 as a pilot program in Peterborough, Ontario and today more than 3,300 therapy dog teams reach thousands annually.”

The dogs are trained to minister to those who are suffering, afraid and alone. And in the Kamloops courthouse in October 2017 they could only stay for 35 minutes before becoming exhausted.

Some of the family members who attended court on that remand day had to wait all day for their matter to be heard, many were highly stressed, some could see their “ex” at the other end of the hall (which in cases involving domestic abuse can heighten fear and trauma), and many had no one there to support them. Many sat in the hallway clutching their papers and looked lost and worried. Many were brave enough to tell us the stories of their journeys. Their lives had been turned upside down, they didn’t understand the process or the likely outcomes, and some knew a stranger (the judge) would be making a decision about where their kids would live or how much child support they would give or receive. Others would, in the end, gather up their courage and stand up in court, hoping for their “day in court” only to be told that all they will get is a date for their next appointment.

Those who were accompanied by family, friends or a support worker seemed to fare better but still seemed weighed down by the heaviness of their journey.

The hallways were also filled with social workers, lawyers, agency representatives, sheriffs and other court officials. They were familiar with the process and the environment and did not seem affected by the distressed people around them.

The therapy dogs are selected to be empathetic and undoubtedly soak up the tension, emotions and toxicity in the atmosphere like little sponges. No wonder this amazing dog could only last 35 minutes.

But if the atmosphere was so challenging for Ollie, what about the family members who are required to come to the courthouse, sometimes for hours at a time??

Pathfinder aims to take a user-centered, collaborative and experimental approach to justice transformation. User-centred means starting with the family members themselves and keeping them involved throughout the process. Seeing the system through their eyes is the only way that we will be able to make meaningful change. Ollie gave us a clear glimpse – and it was not pretty.


[1] Name changed to protect the innocent. Image courtesy of Paige Butterfield:


  1. Ollie the Dog is to the canary as British Columbia Provincial Court Family Remand Day is to the coal mine. And this canary is no more; he is deceased; he has ceased to be; he has snuffed it.

    British Columbia Provincial Court Family Remand Day. I shudder to write the very words. It has been a Kafkaesque living nightmare everywhere it has been my grim duty to attend. There the legal system dumps the most marginalized among us, in the throes of family crisis, all in a throng of anxiety, sadness, anger and above all confusion.

    Government tells these unfortunates, “Welcome to the Process. It is an Adversarial Process, as is tradition. There exists no political will to end your suffering.”

    Of course Ollie wilted after less than an hour. I expect that if cows were aware of their own mortality, Ollie would get similar results at a slaughterhouse. When the good dog ministers in hospital to the sick and the dying, those patients know what they are going through. They know they have nurses and doctors to care for them, and that their medical bills are covered.

    That’s because medical system provides care. While many of the clerks, sheriffs, librarians, judges, and even lawyers are caring people, they remain agents within a legal system that provides a gladiatorial arena. That’s our great shame and failure. The legal system is not set up to provide care.