Courthouse dogs comfort young crime victims

  • Wed Dec 30th, 2009 10:17pm
  • News

By Diana Hefley Herald Writer

EVERETT — Stilson is a bit of a workaholic.

If he is wearing his uniform, a royal blue vest, he’s all business. He is serious, studious and a perfectionist, his boss says.

When he comes to work at the Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, he greets his co-workers, sniffs under their desks for crumbs and heads into the office he shares with lead victim-witness advocate Heidi Potter.

“He has a strong work ethic. He is serious about taking care of people,” Potter said.

Stilson is a service dog who comforts and calms crime victims and their families when they meet with Snohomish County deputy prosecutors and investigators. The 80-pound Labrador retriever mix also sits with crime victims or witnesses in court to ease their anxiety.

Nervous people often find comfort in petting Stilson when they are forced to recount violence against them in front of a roomful of strangers, Potter said.

Stilson once stood vigil next to a girl for two hours as she was on the witness stand testifying against a boy accused of sexually assaulting her, said Ashley Wilske, a child interview specialist with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office.

When he came to the office in 2006, Stilson was only the second service dog in the nation used by prosecutors.

The patient pooch is so good at his job that he convinced people at the sheriff’s office to hire their own service dog last year to help child victims of sexual assault.

Wilske brought Stilson to an interview with a boy a couple of years ago. The dog put the boy at ease enough that the victim finally was able to tell authorities about the crimes against him.

In 2008 Astro, a bulkier version of Stilson, joined the staff at Dawson Place, the county’s child advocacy center.

He is a little more fun-loving than his fellow four-legged co-worker.

“Astro is a 90-pound bundle of goofy, wiggling energy,” Wilske said. “He wants to show off.”

She thinks Astro actually prefers being petted and shown love to eating.

He doesn’t have Stilson’s patience or serious demeanor. He isn’t allowed in courtrooms yet, although that’s the goal, Wilske said.

Instead, Astro spends his working hours befriending young crime victims. They and their families come to Dawson Place, often confused, scared and nervous.

Astro is there to give the kids some comfort as they are asked to relive the violence against them.

Wilske interviews the children, but she can’t hug them or tell them everything is going to be OK. Her job is to objectively collect their statements — a critical piece of evidence in criminal cases.

Astro can offer them the comfort and support Wilske can’t.

Wilske uses Astro to break the ice. She shows the kids how Astro can turn off the lights, close the door, crawl on the ground and balance a piece of food on his nose. The kids help with the tricks. It empowers them, Wilske said.

Astro cuddles up next to the children as Wilske asks them questions. He senses when they need him a little closer. He’ll crawl on their laps. He even licks away the tears.

“I let him take over. He knows intuitively what they need,” Wilske said.

Oftentimes the kids leave the office, talking about Astro. Their families feel special that there is a dog just for their children, Wilske said.

“I don’t know why we didn’t think of this years ago,” she said.

The dogs and their extensive training were provided free of charge by Canine Companions for Independence, a national nonprofit group headquartered in California that breeds and trains dogs primarily for people with disabilities.

Volunteer puppy trainers receive the dogs when they’re a couple of months old. For about a year the volunteers teach the dogs basic skills 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.

Stilson first was trained to be with a person with physical disabilities, but he once lunged at a smaller dog and trainers decided he was better suited for his current work. Astro was born in Florida and sent to New York to be trained as a service dog for people with hearing problems. Trainers decided his personality was better suited in a different setting.

Stilson lives with Potter and her family. Wilske takes Astro home with her every night. Both women pay for the animals food and medical costs.

Potter said Stilson is a welcome distraction for some of the families she meets.

He lightens the mood. They pet him and it gives them something to focus on other instead of why they’re meeting with prosecutors and detectives.

“There were people in the office who thought it was a stupid idea,” Potter said. “They have fallen in love with him. He doesn’t just take care of victims, he also takes care of staff and anyone else working in the courthouse.

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463;