Nonsense, bullshit and constructive dialogues in Higher Education

Dr. Stavroula Tsirogianni, Social Psychology Lecturer with an interest in values, moral dilemmas and perspective taking talks about her experiences of nonsense, bullshit and constructive dialogues in within academia and Higher Education

In June, I went for the first time to the annual conference of the psychosocial studies to give a presentation on a paper I am writing on with a colleague-friend. Psychosocial studies draws on a range of frameworks like psychoanalysis, critical theory, postcolonial studies, feminist and queer theories etc. The conference, as it is not a mainstream one, was quite small and people were very approachable, which made me really happy to be there. What mostly impressed me about the conference was the chairing style in some of the sessions. Some chairs did a brilliant job in terms of creating an informal, open and conversational atmosphere during their sessions, through arranging chairs in circles or through discouraging presenters to stand up and present using PowerPoint or to talk for more than 10 minutes. It worked. People in these sessions were more open and conversations were more relaxed and more interesting and constructive.

My presentation was on the last day of the conference and normally I would be anxious but this time I felt more relaxed because the setting felt safe. When my turn came and I gave my presentation, I asked the 5 people who attended my session for feedback and ideas on specific things that I felt stuck with. A woman from the audience felt really offended by my ideas, because I mixed mainstream and critical psychological theories to talk about how we construct ourselves as ethical beings through common everyday actions and dilemmas such eating our dead pet dog, eating burgers from KFC or wearing leather shoes etc. She found my ideas to be nonsense. She expressed her contempt by rudely interrupting me, asking me to look at her because she wanted to impart her ‘wisdom’ on me, while a woman from the audience was sharing her interesting experiences of dogs as a black person in South Africa during the Apartheid period. What happened in that session was that she wanted to establish her status as an ‘enlightened’ person, who knows better. I did not take this incident personally as this kind of hierarchical interactions, as most of us know who have been in academia for a long time, are common. If this happened to me 14 years ago when I first got into academia, I would be in tears.

…14 years ago…

When I came to the UK I felt like my perception of myself and the world shattered to pieces. I came from Greece where I grew up in a completely different educational system, where the teacher was the all-knowing figure. I was taught to look at myself and at the world in fixed binaries i.e. right vs wrong, rationality vs imagination, individualism vs collectivism. I was mainly trained to look for the truth, reproduce knowledge and produce outcomes through standardized memory testing. Today, I remember very little about the things I learned in high school and university. My education was based on external authority and drills. There was no space for independent action, divergence of views and ambiguity.
When I first came to London and started my PhD at the LSE, I was completely thrown back by the diversity of people and perspectives. I felt ignorant, exposed and lost. I never talked in seminars or classes and if had to talk to someone senior or someone that I thought knew more than me, my heart was pounding from anxiety. I had internalised so much this hierarchical way of thinking that I constantly felt too inadequate to believe in my own ideas.

Finding myself in such a multicultural and international environment challenged my biases, values and worldviews and brought up questions about authority and systems of power, their effects, how knowledge and identities come to be constructed and challenged. My experience of confusion and loss felt like a personal experience that had to be kept separate from the scholarly and educational process. It was through my exchanges and discussions with my peers and not with my teachers that I started addressing the connection of what I was learning and what I was experiencing.

Doing a PhD was a very confusing and lonesome process. But I was not the only one. A lot of my mates from my year felt the same way. It was this experience of isolation and loneliness that brought us together. We spent a lot of hours having discussions, bouncing back and forth ideas about our work, our plans, our anxieties, our aspirations, our lives, academia, about everything over coffee, beer and cigarette breaks – it is when I took on social smoking which then became regular smoking. I clicked more with some than others. Those who I felt closer to were those who I thought would not judge me for my ideas. Very often, our conversations would get very heated and we would end up arguing and feeling frustrated and defensive, but they were still fun, exciting, informal and above all they felt safe. Safe enough to play with ideas through talking ‘nonsense’. I came to realise that talking ‘nonsense’ is important in the process of elucidating thoughts and ideas.

Sadly from my experience in academia during the past 14 years, this type of academic exchanges are quite rare in the formal academic settings of seminars, meetings, symposiums and conferences even in our classrooms. Scholarly dialogues are usually formal, lack excitement and tend to be competitive. Intellectual conversations take the form of wars between egos. There are always people in the audience, who think of themselves as ‘enlightened’ and see their ideas as better than others’ even if their area of expertise is not related to what is being discussed. The aim of such exchanges is to discredit the speaker and to find holes in arguments. Of course as academics we are passionate about what we do, and we do get attached to our ideas as, which we try to protect and defend as our ‘babies’. Even the language that we use to argue about our ideas or to describe our experiences of conversations with colleagues reflects the aggressive nature of academic dialogues. We often use phrases like, this person ‘attacked me’ or ‘attacked my views’ or ‘shot down my argument’. Even the PhD viva is called a ‘defence’.

While being critical is very important part for advancing science and knowledge, the critical view is often associated with justifying theories, providing answers, finding holes in arguments and focusing excessively on details, on a small aspect of an argument. In my view this type of criticism fails to take a discussion to new directions, open new perspectives and generate new questions. Criticism in this context becomes unsafe and threatening since it prioritises cognitive closure, the quest for truth, a convergence of ideas, shutting down the dialogue rather than divergence of views, complexity, collaboration and opening up the dialogue (It is worth reading Alfonso Montuori ‘s work on ambiguity and creativity).

Going back to the idea of nonsense, nonsense is a very important ingredient in critical thinking and imagination. Of course there are different types of nonsense or bullshit (if you are interested in the topic, it is worth checking out Harry G. Frankfurt’s short philosophical essay ‘On bullshit’). According to Frankfurt, there is nonsense that its main motive is pretentiousness and aims to make an argument that suits one’s own purpose and agenda; and then there is nonsense that does not aim at a specific goal. The second kind is related to the concept of play. This type of nonsense allows us to play with ideas, make sense of them, tolerate and explore ambiguity, imagine and generate different scenarios, questions and answers. From a developmental perspective, Vygotsky was among the first psychologists to talk about the importance of play in children’s emotional, social and cognitive development and its contribution to the development of our unique human ability for symbolic representation such as imagination.

The reality is that for academics as well as for students, our passions emerge, develop, evolve and are expressed within certain economic and institutional contexts, which make the concept of play sound ridiculous. I am not trying to promote here a romantic view of academia and universities, where we need to spend hours staring out of our windows into the horizon or at the stars talking bullshit. Although I quite enjoy doing that with friends when I get the chance… I am also not claiming that there is not enough creativity in academia. However, if universities and academia are learning communities where old ideas, theories and assumptions about the world are questioned and new ideas emerge, there needs to be a space for both convergence and divergence of ideas and idea selection.

A learning community is a place of possibilities. I believe that the theories and the research we discuss represent the best possibilities for understanding at the world only at present, but will be replaced by alternative possibilities in the future. It is important to learn how to give up old ideas about our courses, theories and research and unlearn ways of examining and looking at the world.

The same way that societies are not a comforting ‘melting pot’ where different groups peacefully co-exist and agree to disagree with each other, the same goes with academia. Classrooms, seminars, conferences, meetings are not always safe and harmonious and it would be a fantasy to even try to make them harmonious places. All knowledge is constructed against different histories of antagonisms and misuse of power.

However, it is important to try to foster an environment in our classrooms, meetings, symposia that is collaborative and exploratory. Academic inquiries are not only individual mental processes. They are collaborative and science is becoming increasingly collaborative. If we take into account the growing rates of anxiety and depression among students and academics in universities today, the need for community becomes even more important. Generative dialogue and collaboration and not ‘cutthroat’ cooperation are also key skills that our students need to develop in order to become more able to resolve problems when they leave university. A recent meta-analysis of 168 studies across 51, 000 employees in different industries found that leaders reward people who are interested in the success and welfare of the team and organisation rather than themselves only.

The classroom and academia are places, where students and teachers learn how passionate engagement with ideas can lead to conflict, confusion and mistakes. Academia is also a place where like any other place, where we create, accumulate and use knowledge to defend certain positions. Many times we get stuck in these positions, because they feel safe, as they protect our egos and our privileges. However, especially in light of the current climate in higher education, we need to start fostering collaborative contexts, where the discovery and not the justification of positions and ideas is rewarded. We need to cultivate a culture that promotes a view of human beings, the world and knowledge as evolving not as fixed entities. A view of knowledge as an ongoing and evolving inquiry about ourselves and our discipline that at different stages generates answers but also more questions could start to help us reconcile with the idea that it is ok to let go of our ideas, assumptions and positions.

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Comfort Dogs and the Spiritual Experience

Nicole Holt, research assistant to Dr. Liz Spruin, has been exploring the use of dogs for rehabilitation and wellbeing, and the benefits that ‘comfort dogs’ can provide

In America, a new role for dogs has been created called “comfort dogs”. These dogs and their handlers regularly go out into the community and interact with people at churches, schools, nursing homes, hospitals, and various social events throughout the community. The label “comfort dog” was suggested by the Lutheran Church Charities organization in Northbrook, Illinois, going on to write that ‘[comfort dogs] share the mercy and compassion of Jesus Christ with…people’.

While compassionate engagement with the community is commendable, some have argued that this work focuses on vulnerable individuals, particularly when the same individuals might be asked for financial donations. There is a wider issue about the safety and welfare of the dogs involved, but so far no substantiated reports of (mis)treatment have emerged.

However, though it is important to note criticisms of the scheme, we should also consider some of the benefits. For instance, these dogs are also used all around the United States to help people in disaster response situations. One also has to applaud the creative use of such animals, as dogs can be a calming influence on individuals who are in need of comfort. It might also be the case that the dogs are able to gain comfort for the people whom they are helping, leading to a mutual benefit.

Moreover, there have been several case studies, alongside anecdotal evidence, demonstrating that engaging with dogs can help reduce stress and anxiety (Holder, 2013; O’Neill-Stephens, 2011; Wells, 2009). Also, many people, for one reason or another, are not in a situation that allows them to own dogs or simply interact with animals. So, just for a few hours, people can have the benefit of connecting with dogs, which contributes to health and well-being, helping people feel connected with a creature who makes no judgement. As long as a religious organisation is subtle rather than forceful in presenting their own beliefs, and are keeping compassion at the centre of their interactions, then it is easy to see the positives in this initiative.

As we rapidly push forward implementing using dogs in the courtroom, ‘comfort dogs’ provide food for thought about the many roles which dogs can potentially play in society.

To find out more about comfort dogs please follow this link to their website: Immanuel Lutheran Ministries


Holder, C. (2013) ‘All Dogs Go To Court: the Impact of Court Facility Dogs as Comfort for Child Witnesses on a Defendant’s Right to a Fair Trial’ Hous. L. Rev., 50, pp.1155.

O’Neill-Stephens, E. (2011) ‘Courthouse Facility Dogs.’ [Online] Available at: (Accessed 14th Septemeber 2016)

Wells, D. (2009) ‘The effects of animals on human health and well‐being.’ Journal of social issues, 65(3), 523-543.

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Artificial Intelligence in Teaching: The State of the Art

Our technician Richard Weatherall attended a talk on Artificial Intelligence in Education (UCL Knowledge Lab/Pearson) on 24th March

The term artificial intelligence (AI) causes a wide range of different associations for people, usually depending on the level of experience or exposure an individual has to such systems. Many still hold the opinion that AI will herald the end of humanity, believing that its advent will make humans redundant, obsolete, or it will even become advanced to a state where it may decide it has no need for humans and begin to act accordingly.

Fear-mongering aside, AI is already becoming embedded in our society, with companies such as Apple, Google and Microsoft all deploying their AI personal assistants (Siri, Now and Cortana) as standard with their products. Historically, there has always been resistance to a paradigm shift such as this, and while it is true some human jobs may be replaced with a mechanoid or synthetic counterpart, the opportunities created are often so vast and diverse even the most prophetic cannot envision the direction of the future unraveling before them.

The International Artificial Intelligence in Education society is concerned with the research and development of the implementation of Artificial Intelligence for learning; and believes well-designed AI, in collaboration with teachers, parents and learners is paramount in maximizing the future benefits AI can offer, which are vast. A recent talk hosted by the UCL Knowledge lab, London, in collaboration with Pearson, highlighted current research in the area, as well as a demonstration of AI currently being deployed to assist learning.

The talk began with a presentation of a review of various meta-analyses looking at use of a number of AI systems/programs in a classroom environment. Results varied slightly between studies, but overall gave a positive view of AI integration. Notably, intelligent teaching systems performed as well as real teachers in one to one (non-expert) tuition. One common theme however, was that despite the varied and positive ways AI systems have been implemented, it was found that there is no AI substitute for classroom experience, with AI systems greatly aiding the teacher, but not being able (or intended) to replace them.

The need for properly developed teaching aids is more important than ever with the government’s plan to academize schools, possibly resulting in a lack of regulated experienced teachers and a focus on the financial bottom line. The bottom line for most teachers, however, is that teachers love to teach; and technology must enhance, enable and empower teachers to this end, which is the goal of AI in Education.

Whatever your opinion of AI, it’s widespread development and use only appears to be increasing. AI therapy programs, for example, are already being deployed to aid mental health in remote areas and populations isolated by war. As computational models of human emotion become more sophisticated and machine learning ever better at detecting the mental state of it user, the need for proper theoretical and experimental data driven designs are paramount. As one guest involved in computing and psychology at the AI.ED talk noted, computer programmers are not inherently psychologists, and psychologists not trained as programmers – a knowledge gap which must be closed in order that AI be safely and productively deployed with maximum benefit for the good of human kind.

Intelligence unleashed: An argument for AI in Education is a publication produced by ULC Knowledge lab and Pearson to inform and educate about the current state of AI.

Some examples of current AI systems being researched and implemented in classrooms, and presented at AI.ED, include Betty’s Brain, italk2learn, Zondle, The Tardis Project and (Whizz education)[].

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How social psychology will change your life

The typical CCCU Psychology student is drawn towards clinical, health, forensic, and/or educational psychology. But the sub-discipline of psychology that I love is social psychology, because of its relevance to everything that goes on in the world. Let me give you two examples:

In March 2015, the co-pilot of a German airliner crashed his plane in the French Alps, killing all passengers and crew. Media coverage of this tragic event quickly centred on his mental health and the security provisions on board. But, as if the event itself had not been shocking enough, the reader comments added to various online articles were soon full of speculation about a catastrophic safety failure on an aged and poorly maintained aircraft, now systematically covered up by the airline and the investigating authorities in France and Germany. An obvious but seldom asked question about this event is thus: Why were people so ready to believe these complex and sinister ideas, when the official investigation had suggested the (subsequently confirmed) suicide and murder early on?

There is a young but growing body of social-psychological literature about conspiracism, some of which features in our second-year module, Influences on Social Functioning. This literature suggests, for example, that people may believe conspiracy theories because big events prompt them to seek big explanations (Leman & Cinnirella, 2007). It also supplies some evidence of projection processes, whereby people will tend to believe in actions that they would be willing to take themselves (Douglas & Sutton, 2011). A possible – unproven – explanation for the belief in conspiracy theories around the 2015 airline crash is therefore that people could imagine complicity in a cover-up but not in the suicidal intentions of a single person causing the tragic deaths of so many.

The second example of how social psychology offers a different perspective on current events is very current indeed: The British EU referendum on 23 June 2016 will determine whether the UK leaves or remains a member of the European Union. Throughout the debate about a potential “Brexit”, I have been struck by speakers’ attempts to focus on economic arguments, when the issues so obviously involve identity, solidarity, power, and nationalism. As will be well known to students of our third-year module, The Psychology of Nations, there is evidence from discourse analytic studies that English interviewees may avoid talking about national pride for fear of appearing prejudiced (e.g. Condor, 2000), but commonly use references to “being an island” to highlight distinctiveness from other European nations (Abell et al., 2006). The way people feel about national and European identity does not seem to be well represented in the political arguments about the referendum, and important complexities in precisely these areas seem to be in danger of being overlooked prior to such an important decision. A quantitative study by Cinnirella and Hamilton (2007), for example, found significant negative correlations between British and European identity (r = -.25) and between British identity and attitudes towards Europe (r = -.46) among white British participants, but positive correlations between the same measures (r = .74 and r = .41, respectively) among British Asians. Perceived compatibility between Britishness and Europe is obviously variable and deserves to be part of the debate.

So here is my promise and challenge to you: Social psychology will help you think differently about current affairs. When following the news, try to apply this perspective and think about what it adds to your understanding. Feel free to send me your ideas – I’ll be interested in hearing about them!


Abell, J., Condor, S., & Stevenson, C. (2006). “We are an island”: Geographical imagery in accounts of citizenship, civil society, and national identity in Scotland and in England. Political Psychology, 27(2), 207-226. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9221.2006.00003.x

Cinnirella, M., & Hamilton, S. (2007). Are all Britons reluctant Europeans? Exploring European identity and attitudes to Europe among British citizens of South Asian ethnicity. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 30(3), 481–501. doi:10.1080/01419870701217530

Condor, S. (2000). Pride and prejudice: Identity management in English people’s talk about “this country”. Discourse and Society, 11(2), 175-205. doi: 10.1177/0957926500011002003

Douglas, K.M., & Sutton, R.M. (2011). Does it take one to know one? Endorsement of conspiracy theories is influenced by personal willingness to conspire. British Journal of Social Psychology, 50(3), 455-552. doi: 10.1111/j.2044-8309.2010.02018.x

Leman, P. J., & Cinnirella, M. (2007). A major event has a major cause: Evidence for the role of heuristics in reasoning about conspiracy theories. Social Psychological Review, 9(2), 18-28.

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Read all about it!

As we come to the end of the 2015-16 academic year, it’s time to update you on our recent news and events. Our latest CCCU Psychology Newsletter introduces our new Director of Psychology – Dr. Amanda Carr. We also cover: highlights from “Psychology has talent”, student stories, research project updates and more. We hope you enjoy keeping up to date with CCCU Psychology. Don’t forget you can also connect with us via Facebook (CCCU Psychology), Twitter (@CCCUPsych) and LinkedIn (CCCU Psychology). Finally, good luck to our current students for the last round of deadlines and exams!

Download the newsletter now!

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The Horse as a Therapist’s Assistant

Philosophers and practitioners alike have recognised that humankind has had a long and enduring relationship with all things natural. Jung had suggested that our over-civilised selves could do with some re-wilding! One route to this is to re-connect with our animal brethren, and for those who have suffered psychological trauma, a more specific approach is through animal-assisted therapy. While many animals provide comfort at a simple psychological and physiological level as ‘companions’, others elicit different responses and experiences. Compare, for instance, being in the company of a whale or goldfish. In the company of a large animal, it is possible that a sense of awe triggers regression to development periods that reflect similar relational experiences during childhood, which enables a process of resolution and self-development. Moreover, people with severe trauma or those for whom talking is difficult, such as young children and people with autism, non-linguistic and embodied communication may be more important. Animals are able to ‘read’ these signals and respond and interact in a way that is perceived by many as safe and therapeutic.


In particular, the use of horses for aiding recovery from trauma, typically Equine Assisted Therapy, has been gaining some interest and practice recently. A forthcoming chapter in a book addressing various forms of outdoor therapy, Ecotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice edited by Martin Jordan and Joe Hinds, details the ideas, benefits and practice behind Equine Assisted Therapy.


The horse encourages people to act and behave in a way consistent with their actual thoughts and feelings (congruence), which may potentially be overlooked or under-developed within the counselling room. The horse responds with honesty and without a hidden agenda reacting to the internal world of the person, regardless of their efforts to conceal it.

Direct experiences with a large animal can produce a sense of perceived mutual understanding – there is a substitution of verbal cognitive communication for a basic or primal communication that is symbolic and directly dictates behaviour. The human response to a large animal will often be attuned to its physical presence and its movements and may, through the tactile, embodied and physical quality of the animal encounter, enhance important unexpressed emotions and build relational aspects of the self that have been thwarted or under-developed. Martin Clunes the actor experiences this directly in the video below:

In short, these experiences can prompt authentic moments, whereby the statement ‘actions speak louder than words’ has added significance.

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Fancy an Insect?

Last week’s evolutionary psychology seminar was on the topic of emotions, and why we have them. There are six basic human emotions (and some of them are shown in many animals as well). They are happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, fear, and disgust. Across the globe, people of all cultures and backgrounds produce the same facial expressions for each of these, and they are universally understood. In our seminar, there were very few happy faces (it was Friday afternoon in January…), but not too many sad, angry or scared people. One of the papers we discussed was on the reasons disgust would be useful for our survival. To demonstrate the feeling and to evoke the facial expressions, students were offered a dish with dried mealworms and crickets (produced for human consumption…).

I am making a disgusted face as I am typing this. But why would a nutritious, free snack be so off-putting? Insects are high in protein and minerals and, therefore, a valuable treat. In many countries, insects are a staple food (the eating of insects is called entomophagy). Interestingly, these insects are all vegetarian. Insects that feed on contaminated matter, such as excrement, dead meat or blood, are not used as human foods.

For a person with a European upbringing, the eating of insects is unusual (I am not talking about the flies swallowed by cyclists, or aphids eaten with a salad). But why, when we can easily overcome unfamiliarity with new foods from different parts of the world (sushi, anyone?), do we have so much trouble with eating insects?

We all show disgust. It helps our survival by making us avoid from things that might make us sick. We are disgusted by body excretions and parts, slimy, damp and stinky items, and rotten food. And if you dare to think about what might be an indicator that food has gone off, or what wiggles in excrements, you will come up with worms. They are also slimy and damp. They trigger our ‘do not eat!’ alarm. And therefore we show disgust on our faces, just by thinking about the kind offer of a dried mealworm with our tea. Humans from insect-eating cultures will be equally disgusted by our European habit of eating meat stuffed into the colon of animals (sausages), or sheep intestines encased in the animal’s stomach (haggis). But, overall, the emotion of disgust serves an evolutionary purpose, to enhance our survival. Basically, hygiene is in our genes.

(Mealworms don’t taste of much, but leave a lingering, rather unpleasant aftertaste. And no, I didn’t try the crickets.)

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Oscar unable to convince judges “it’s raining”

In a country where 50 people are murdered every day, with only half of all murder cases being sent to court, and a shocking 12% of which result in a guilty verdict (South Africa Statistics Association, 2015), South Africa is considered the ‘the most murderous society on earth’ (Nedcore Project, 2015). The South Africa Statistics Association (SASA) recently revealed that next to war torn countries, the high murder rate makes this country the worse conflicted area in the world (McCafferty, 2015). The statistics speak for themselves, it is clear that the South African Criminal Justice System is failing. Arguably, that was until yesterday… perhaps things are starting to change in a society that is deemed to have the highest rates of violence against women in the world (Faul, 2013).

For over two years, millions of people across the world have watched the South African Justice System unfold in the Oscar Pistorius trail. Prosecution and defence have traded blows over what happened the night Oscar Pistorius killed his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. The reason as to why Pistorius shot four deadly blows through a locked bathroom on 14 February 2013 is likely to remain a mystery. Whether Pistorius knew it was Steenkamp behind the bathroom door, or an intruder, will perhaps be debated for years. But the shock that exploded across the world when Pistorius was convicted of culpable homicide, spending only one year in prison from taking an innocent life, was uncontested. Indeed, in one survey only 7% of the British public believed him to be innocent (Dalgreen, 2015).

In my opinion, yesterday, the courts in South Africa have made an unprecedented leap in the justice system, when Pistorius’ original verdict was overturned and replaced with murder. This conviction (which carries a minimum of 15 years in South Africa) comes unanimously from five judges, stating that Pistorius ‘never offered an acceptable explanation’ for firing four times through closed doors. Although we may never know exactly what happened the night Steenkamp was killed, one thing is certain, the logistics of Pistorius’ account is by all means a far stretch of the imagination. Perhaps Judge Judy summed it up best when she stated that defendants provide such elaborate stories…‘don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining’.

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Follow up: Dogs in the Courtroom and Forensic Psychology

This guest post is by Sessional Lecturer Nicole Holt

For the first time at Christ Church University, a lecture (in the second year forensic and investigative psychology module) was given on the use of dogs in forensics. The focus then moved onto the use of dogs in the court rooms. Not only that, two charming greyhound reading doggies in training came and joined us! (Thank you, Olivia Noble.)

The main uses of dogs in forensics and policing more generally include: sniffer dogs/drug detection, search and rescue, tracking, training, fieldwork, victim recovery, explosion detection, arson detection and, of course, most people’s favourite – therapy doggies which can be used in prisons, court rooms, waiting rooms, and counselling.

Dogs have been used by law enforcement agencies for over 100 years. Bloodhounds were used when searching for Jack the Ripper in 1888, and during that time they allowed canines to accompany police on patrol (Bell, 2004). However, more broadly, written recognition of the relationships of human–animal bonding dates to the 1700s in York, England, where the Society of Friends established a facility called The Retreat to provide humane treatment for the mentally ill. It was recognised that having patients care for the many farm animals on the estate would aid in the patients’ rehabilitation (Hart-Cohen, 2009). Furthermore, others throughout history note the benefits of dogs such as Florence Nightingale. This then eventually led onto the use of pet therapy animals being more widely accepted and charities set up to provide these facilities. This finally led to dogs being used in court rooms in America.

It would appear that one of the original courthouse dogs to aid young victims was a German shepherd named Vachss, used by the Children’s Advocacy Centre (CAC) in Jackson, Mississippi, USA, in the 1990s. In 1994 Vachss was presented with the Hero of the Year award for his role comforting children in the courtroom while they testified in abuse cases. The way in which a dog in the court room helps is that the dog tends rests at the victim’s feet during every interview and also sits with people outside the courtroom as they wait to testify. Some go up to the witness stand with a person and stands beside them at sentencing (Wallick, 2005). Sometimes people who are due to come to court go to see the dogs and bond with the dogs prior to attending.

Despite the growing success in America of using dogs in the courtroom, it is an area that has not been heavily explored within the UK. Therefore our next step is to explore the use of trained therapy/reading dogs in certain environments like court waiting rooms and, after our lecture, we have some keen students who are very willing to help us! We really feel this is an area which would be worth further exploration. We truly hope that in the next 20 years dogs will become a regular feature in UK courts across the country after all… it’s time our friends with paws had their day in court!

Dogs 1

Dogs 3

Dogs 4

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Dogs in the Courtroom?

It’s everyone’s worst nightmare. A horror movie come true. You’re the victim of a serious crime. Your world turns upside down; your body trembles in fear, your mind stunned with fright. Physically, mentally and wholeheartedly overwhelmed, you drop to the floor and cry out ‘Why me?’ Whilst the shock of the ordeal is still in the forefront of your mind and your whole body still imprisoned by terrorized fear, you are asked by prosecutors to relive the experience that completely paralyses your core; even worse, you are asked to recount the event in a courtroom of strangers. Emotionally destroyed, you look over and see your attacker staring at you, the defence counsel pressuring you to hurry up your testimony. You close your eyes, take a deep breath and tell yourself, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’

Now imagine the same situation, but this time, as you are asked by prosecutors to provide a detailed account of your nightmare, a special dog rests at your feet in the courtroom. The same dog waited with you outside the courtroom as you prepared to testify – walked by your side as you made your way to the witness stand – stands beside you when the jury makes their verdict – and accompanies you when the court hands down their sentence. At each stage of the ordeal you look down at your four-legged friend, stroke his soft fur, gaze into his warm brown eyes and feel the reassuring weight of his head resting on your foot. You feel calm knowing that your friend is there for you, providing you the strength to get through your nightmare.

Whilst this scenario is merely an example of what could happen if the UK court system allowed the use of trained dogs in the courtroom, it opens up the potential for alternative forms of support in courtrooms around the country. This idea may be new to the UK but it has been successfully implemented in a number of States across America.

Advocates from the Courthouse Dogs Foundation (2015) in America proclaim that when a person is reliving a traumatic event, they experience physiological reactions similar to what they had when the event was taking place, so involving dogs to support these victims during this ordeal is a type of therapeutic jurisprudence that helps to calm and support many victims. Stephens (2011) pointed out that, typically, the victim simply holds the leash in their hands, which provides a sense of control for them, or they might bend down occasionally to stroke the dog’s head, which often provides comfort. Uncontestably, studies (e.g., Sandoval, 2010) have confirmed that animate touch (e.g., holding a dogs leash or petting a dog while testifying) often leads to a psychological sense of well being, decreased anxiety, lowered heart rate, increased speech and memory functions, and heightened mental clarity.

Along with supporters arguing that the use of service dogs in the courtroom can be very useful in helping reduce stress to emotionally traumatized witnesses. More recently, it has been contended that the use of dogs in the courtroom can further aid in securing more witness testimony, as victims who may otherwise refuse to testify due to the stress of the ordeal are being provided with more support and comfort than before. This could ultimately lead to a boom in the criminal justice system, as more criminals could be brought to justice (Dellinger, 2009).

Despite the growing success in America of using dogs in the courtroom, it is an area that has not been heavily explored within the UK. The question as to why remains uncertain to me. In my opinion, if dogs have been shown to provide comfort to victims, reduce their stress and make them calmer in a legal system that is a direct descended of the English courts, then surly this is something we should consider within our own courts. Sure, opponents could argue that the presence of a dog assisting a witness in court prejudices the jury’s perception of the witness. The use of a dog may signal that the witness is frail and weak and result in undue jury sympathy that then interferes with the defendant’s right to a fair trial. But courts could counter argue that historically witnesses have always been entitled to comfort items when providing evidence, from blankets and dolls to relatives and support advocates. A dog in the courtroom can simply be viewed as another comfort item.

The law is not and should not be static. The proof is always in the pudding and in this instance it is clear that court service dogs provide important benefits to both the prosecution and defence. The courts in America have already recognised this and its time that the UK, at the very least, explore the benefits of allowing the use of service dogs for emotionally traumatized witnesses.

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