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Published: Wednesday, June 18, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Therapy dogs offer comfort to children, crime victims at the county courthouse

  • Gabrielle Sterbank, 9, hugs the new courthouse therapy dog, Lucy, who is joining the other yellow lab, Harper.  Gabrielle, who is not a client, was in...

    Dan Bates / The Herald

    Gabrielle Sterbank, 9, hugs the new courthouse therapy dog, Lucy, who is joining the other yellow lab, Harper. Gabrielle, who is not a client, was in the office visiting her mom, a civil deputy prosecutor with Snohomish County.

  • Oh, the joys of being a therapy dog.  After a hard hour at the office, Harper (left) and Lucy go into rest mode at the feet of their handlers, Gina Co...

    Dan Bates / The Herald

    Oh, the joys of being a therapy dog. After a hard hour at the office, Harper (left) and Lucy go into rest mode at the feet of their handlers, Gina Coslett (left) and Kathy Murray.

  • Gabrielle Sterbank, 9, plays momentarily with a new, young courthouse therapy dog, Lucy, a two-and-a-half-year-old yellow Lab, as handlers Kathy Murra...

    Dan Bates / The Herald

    Gabrielle Sterbank, 9, plays momentarily with a new, young courthouse therapy dog, Lucy, a two-and-a-half-year-old yellow Lab, as handlers Kathy Murray, left, and Gina Coslett watch. Gabrielle, who is not a client, was in the office visiting her mom, a civil deputy prosecutor with Snohomish County.

  • Gabrielle Sterbank, 9, pets a new courthouse therapy dog, Lucy, a yellow Lab that joins Harper (background).  Gabrielle, who is not a client, was in t...

    Dan Bates / The Herald

    Gabrielle Sterbank, 9, pets a new courthouse therapy dog, Lucy, a yellow Lab that joins Harper (background). Gabrielle, who is not a client, was in the county campus office visiting her mom, a civil deputy prosecutor with Snohomish County.

  • Courthouse therapy dogs, Harper (left) and Lucy hang out with their handlers, Gina Coslett, (left) and Kathy Murray on Monday.

    Dan Bates / The Herald

    Courthouse therapy dogs, Harper (left) and Lucy hang out with their handlers, Gina Coslett, (left) and Kathy Murray on Monday.

  • Gabrielle Sterbank pets the new courthouse therapy dog, Lucy, who is joining the other yellow Lab, Harper. Gabrielle, 9, is not a client, but was in t...

    Dan Bates / The Herald

    Gabrielle Sterbank pets the new courthouse therapy dog, Lucy, who is joining the other yellow Lab, Harper. Gabrielle, 9, is not a client, but was in the office visiting her mom, a civil deputy prosecutor with Snohomish County.

  • Gabrielle Sterbank, 9, hugs the new courthouse therapy dog, Lucy, who is joining the other yellow Lab, Harper. Gabrielle, who is not a client, was in ...

    Dan Bates / The Herald

    Gabrielle Sterbank, 9, hugs the new courthouse therapy dog, Lucy, who is joining the other yellow Lab, Harper. Gabrielle, who is not a client, was in the office visiting her mom, a civil deputy prosecutor with Snohomish County.

EVERETT — Lucy was on the job only a few days before she was led into a roomful of grief.
Snohomish County deputy prosecutors and victim advocates were meeting with the family of a woman who'd been killed.
Lucy, a petite Labrador and Golden Retriever mix, roamed among 20 or so people. Over the next two hours she often returned to the same woman — the victim's mother.
“Instinctively, she knew,” said the dog's handler, Kathy Murray.
Lucy is a compassionate visitor. She will sit next to a scared child for hours, soaking up the tears. She cuddles and presses her nose into shaky hands. She leans into the hurt.
Lucy is the county's newest courthouse dog. She joins Harper, another dainty Lab, who spends most of her work day at Dawson Place, the county's child advocacy center.
Dawson Place serves more than 1,000 abused children every year. The center provides medical care and counseling for young crime victims and their families. It also houses detectives and prosecutors who investigate crimes against children.
Harper's handler, Gina Coslett, is a child interview specialist at Dawson Place. She's tasked with asking children about crimes they've witnessed or have had committed against them. Coslett often brings Harper, and now Lucy, to interviews.
The highly trained dogs can break the ice when children are asked to talk about sexual and physical abuse. They can close drawers and turn off lights. They hold their own leashes. They can offer the comfort that the child interview specialists must withhold to remain neutral.
Additionally, Snohomish County judges have allowed the dogs, hidden from jurors, to sit with children as they testify in court. Some families also ask for the dogs to be with them as they watch the trials of people accused of killing their loved ones. Lucy also has been spending time at Denney Juvenile Justice Center, including Friday afternoons with teens involved with the county's therapeutic drug court.
Lucy, 2 ½, came aboard after the county's first courthouse dog retired last year. When he came to the office in 2006, Stilson was only the second service dog in the nation used by prosecutors.
The prosecutor's office began looking for the right candidate when Stilson's handler announced that she'd be leaving.
Murray, a legal assistant in the civil division, was interested.
She and her family raised and showed Staffordshire Bull Terriers for about 16 years. Once her two children were out of the house and their last dog passed away, she and her husband decided they weren't going to have any more dogs.
She changed her mind when the opportunity came up to help crime victims. She also felt good about having a dog that she wouldn't have to leave alone at home all day.
Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe selected Murray to apply for the program. She can do a lot of her job on a laptop and work wherever the dog may be needed. It took about a year for Murray to be matched with Lucy.
The pooch started working in February. She's been training for the gig since she was a puppy.
Harper and Lucy were provided by Canine Companions for Independence, a private non-profit group that breeds and trains dogs mainly for people with disabilities.
Volunteer puppy trainers receive the dogs when the animals are a couple of months old. For about a year the volunteers teach the dogs basic obedience and expose them to social settings, such as malls and restaurants. Then the dogs are sent to a facility for extensive, professional training. The dogs usually are about 2 when they are matched with a handler.
Murray spent a week in Santa Rosa, California, to learn how to work with the dogs. She also learned that the dogs need specialized care, including daily grooming and strict diets.
“A lot revolves around her bathroom schedule,” Murray said.
The dogs can't whine if they're in the courtroom, Coslett said. They're expected to be clean, quiet and well-behaved. The handlers don't want to do anything to put the program in jeopardy.
“They take good care of others so we have to take good care of them,” Coslett said.
Coslett and Murray took the dogs out to Cascade Valley Hospital in Arlington about a week after the deadly landslide in Oso. Staff there had treated some of the victims. It was the first time the dogs had been in a hospital. They went to work.
Nurses cuddled the dogs, sometimes in tears. The dogs visited with the sick, including an injured girl who'd had an accident at home. Both dogs curled up with the girl on her hospital bed.
The women also took the dogs to visit the west side command center. There they nuzzled volunteers, some of whom hadn't seen their own dogs in days.
Harper and Lucy have become best buddies. They both love having their teeth brushed and playing tug-of-war with toys. Harper perks up whenever Coslett says it's time to see “Lucy Lou.”
“It was like they were separated at birth,” Murray said.
She and Coslett try to bring the dogs together at least once a day during the work week. The animals' blue work vests come off, signaling them that it's time to play or relax. Earlier this week, the two dogs raced back and forth in Murray's office. Her colleagues worked on, accustomed to canine play time. Her coworkers carry the dogs' special treats and don't seem to mind when Harper insists on closing an open desk drawer.
The dogs curled up next to each other on a couch, two furry bookends.
Coslett is grateful to have a second dog at work again. There were times when she was doing five interviews a day. That was a lot of work for Harper to do alone. The stress can weigh on a dog, Coslett said.
“They love to work but it does take a toll on them,” she said. “They need down time.”
Lucy is proving to be a good fit for her job at the courthouse.
“She's like an old pro,” Coslett said.
Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; hefley@heraldnet.com.
Story tags » EverettProsecuting AttorneyAnimalsMental health

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