By Jim Haley / Herald Writer
EVERETT – The woman, a victim of domestic violence, was about to stand before a judge and talk about the sentence for her assailant.
“She was super anxious,” said Keri Wallace, a victim-witness advocate in the Snohomish County prosecuting attorney’s office. “She was shaking and couldn’t calm herself down.”
Stilson, a 2-year-old Labrador retriever mix, put his head on the woman’s lap. The woman calmed down. Stilson did his job.
Later, after the woman read her comments to the judge, Stilson sat at her feet, easing her nervousness during the remainder of the court hearing.
The dog, a well-trained service animal, is the latest addition to the prosecutor’s staff. He’s capable of performing small miracles by easing tense situations.
Well, at least extreme feats of canine favor.
What more could one ask of a dog?
Stilson is a 70-pound bundle of fur and love with dark eyes that melt a heart. He makes one want to pet him. And he quickly returns the favor with a contented rub and look of gratitude.
He’s the second service animal in the Northwest to be introduced to courts and witnesses through a prosecutor’s office. King County has the first.
The plan is to use him to help calm witnesses or victims in sensitive interviews and sometimes in court, said Heidi Potter, a victim-witness counselor who keeps Stilson at her home.
The newly acquired dog will be introduced slowly to courtrooms, allowing judges to get used to his presence and learn that Stilson is so well trained that he won’t cause a commotion, Potter said.
Canine Companions for Independence, a private nonprofit group that breeds and trains dogs mainly for people with disabilities, retains ownership of Stilson, said Katie Mize, graduate program manager for the organization.
She’s located at the group’s Northwest facility in Santa Rosa, Calif., one of five regional locations of Canine Companions.
Mostly Labrador and golden retriever mixes are used because of their temperament and willingness to please, Mize said.
“All around, they are the most perfectly suited breeds,” she said.
Puppies spend the first eight weeks in a home, then go to volunteer puppy trainers, where they learn basic skills, are socialized and become exposed to malls, grocery stores and even baseball parks.
Then they go to one of the five regional facilities, where they learn advanced skills and sharpen the basics.
Stilson knows about 30 commands, including “visit.” That’s when he puts his head in someone’s lap.
The dogs graduate when they’re about 2 years old and after receiving extensive training worth thousands of dollars.
One of the best features is that the county doesn’t have to pay for training the dog. The only cost was to send Potter to California in November for her training in handling Stilson. A second trip is scheduled in early 2007 for a training checkup.
A big test for any graduate is the “french fry” exam. That’s because, as Mize puts it, these breeds’ “brains are in their stomachs.”
They really, really like to eat.
The test includes taking the dog to a fast-food restaurant, dropping a fry or some other goodie on the floor and telling the dog not to react.
“The idea is to encourage a dog not to eat anything off the floor,” Potter said.
At work in the prosecutor’s office, Stilson is subdued and all business. He will push large buttons for automatic doors, pick up a dropped credit card for Potter, goes into his kennel on command and carries his own waste bags.
At Potter’s home, he plays with Potter’s American Eskimo dog, Moe, and generally ignores and is ignored by her cat, Shaggy. Potter pays for Stilson’s food and vet bills.
Mize, who was one of Stilson’s trainers, said this dog is more suited for the kind of work he will do in the prosecutor’s office than working with a single person with a disability. She plans to see Stilson every few years to make sure handler and dog are still performing well.
There shouldn’t be a problem.
“He’s incredibly intelligent and very willing to please,” Mize said.
Reporter Jim Haley: 425-339-3447 or firstname.lastname@example.org.