A unique Fairfax County Department of Family Services’ employee has some quirks.
She loves broccoli and green beans. She won’t get into a car unless she’s picked up. And she wants nothing more than cuddles and belly rubs.
Rylynn, a 3-year-old Labrador Golden Retriever mix, is the department’s certified facility dog. As part of her role with the department, Rylynn supports children who are testifying in court by joining them in the witness box or providing support before and after testimony.
Samantha “Sam” Carrico is Rylynn’s handler and supervisor of the department’s Volunteer & Partner Services Program. She told Virginia Lawyers Weekly that her presence in the courtroom has a grounding effect during what can be a stressful time.
“Testifying for anyone can be very anxiety-inducing, and just having a dog in a courtroom lets everyone sort of take a breath, especially if your experience with a dog is positive,” Carrico said.
She added that law enforcement and victim services will reach out if a “difficult case” is coming to provide support for children or families with upcoming testimony.
Born and raised by Canine Companions, a nonprofit that raises and trains facility dogs, Rylynn spent much of her early life in the Northeast before being paired with Carrico and joining the department in May 2021.
Carrico became interested in working with a facility dog after interacting with one during a forensic interview training.
“That really sparked my interest in wanting us to have one because it really goes so well,” she said. “The children within child welfare have done so well having Rylynn and she really has made such a difference.”
Carrico said the most common comment she hears on Rylynn is that she is “very calm” and that she is perceptive of people’s emotions.
“It’s like she can sense if someone is having a bad day or feels stressed. That tends to be the person she goes to whenever we’re meeting new people,” Carrico said.
Per the DFS website, Rylynn made 20 court appearances and assisted in two forensic interviews in her first year with the department.
This clever canine’s role with the department extends beyond the courthouse. Rylynn also takes part in body safety classes put on by the department at area elementary schools to help teach children body safety rules and how to recognize child abuse.
The use of facility dogs for courthouse testimony is a relatively new concept in the legal community.
Virginia enacted the commonwealth’s first law on the use of facility dogs in court in 2018, with the bipartisan passage of two identical bills in the chambers of the Virginia General Assembly.
The law, Va. Code § 18.2-67.9:1, permits the use of a “certified facility dog” for testimony in criminal proceedings. Caveats include that the dog is qualified and will aid the witness in providing testimony, and that the party applies for the order “at least 14 days before the preliminary hearing, trial date, or other hearing to which the order is to apply.”
As the use of facility dogs rises nationally, the number of court opinions on their usage also grows.
Rylynn herself was the subject of an opinion issued by Fairfax County Circuit Judge Robert J. Smith over the summer in Commonwealth v. Vargas (VLW 022-8-061), granting a motion by the assistant commonwealth’s attorney to use Rylynn at trial.
“Cases from across the country overwhelmingly conclude that the use of a facility dog does not deprive the defendant of the Constitutional right to confront the witness against him, that the use of a facility dog does not unduly influence the jurors, and the use of a facility dog falls within the inherent authority of a trial court of manage the proceedings before it,” Smith wrote.
Smith said Virginia is one of 19 states with laws that “grant these remarkable creatures a special place in the courtrooms of the land.” The judge added that Va. Code § 18.2-67.9:1 “is one of the most generous of all the facility dog statutes across the country,” as it does not require the witness to be of a certain age, have a disability, or “show a need for the dog.”
In the Vargas case, Smith denied a procedural objection by the defendant after finding the 14-day window had been followed by the commonwealth. The judge further addressed the defendant’s concerns about the behavior of facility dogs at trial, explaining that the court can craft jury instructions to address the issue.
“The Court also has the power, in its discretion, to limit Rylynn’s presence in front of the jury,” Smith wrote. “[M]any jurisdictions have limited the dog’s visibility to jurors, as well as emphasizing to jurors that the facility dog is a trained animal performing its job instead of the witness’s personal pet.”
Virginia’s facility dogs
According to the Courthouse Dogs Foundation, 11 facility dogs are working in Virginia today and can be found in all regions. Carrico believes Rylynn is the only facility dog placed with a department of family services in Virginia.
Per the Courthouse Dogs Foundation’s website, there are at least 295 facility dogs working in 41 states, a number that has risen by 23 in the last year.
The list is exclusive to dogs who graduated from an accredited organization like Canine Companions and is handled by “a professional working in the legal field.” That means some “therapy” dogs that may work in legal settings are excluded from the list.
Among the additional dogs not included in the count is Seamus.
The rescue poodle adopted by Botetourt County Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Gillian Deegan is training to become a courthouse facility dog.
Deegan said she had been looking for a shelter dog to train for the task of becoming a courthouse facility dog when she saw Seamus online.
“I scheduled a meeting with him in his foster home and quickly determined if ever a dog was appropriate for such a task, it was Seamus,” Deegan said in an email to Virginia Lawyers Weekly. “He clearly loved people and lots of attention and exhibited a calm demeanor.”
Deegan’s inspiration for taking on the task comes from her passion for victim rights and advocacy. When she was 20, Deegan was the victim of a violent crime.
“I experienced first-hand how frustrating, intimidating and scary the criminal justice system can be for victims and witnesses,” she said
As a private practice attorney, Deegan often brought her Great Pyrenees to work when talking with children she was representing, which she said made it “much easier” for the children to tell what happened to them.
“When the Virginia legislators decided to recognize the use of dogs in the courtroom, I started thinking about getting a dog to utilize in Botetourt,” Deegan said. She knew she wanted it to be a shelter dog.
Outside of the courtroom, Seamus has met with victims and witnesses to become acclimated with the court.
“Our child victims are particularly fond of him. It is amazing to watch the change in their body language as they pet him and begin to open up,” Deegan said.
Seamus has also become popular around the Botetourt legal community, which Deegan said has “truly embraced” him.
“He has been a big hit in our General District Court when he arrives in the waiting room and visits with everyone as they wait for their cases to be heard,” Deegan said.
In Fairfax, Carrico said Rylynn’s presence with the department has been “life changing,” both for having Rylynn as a companion and for changing the department’s public outreach.
“It’s really opened a lot of doors in terms of partnerships with the community and has helped build a lot of relationships with our community partners,” Carrico said. “I think it’s going to change the way that we are able to navigate child welfare cases.”