EVERETT — Harper Lea bites one end of a chew toy as she plays tug-of-war with a few of her friends.
The four yellow dogs push one another into the walls of a narrow hallway at Dawson Place in Everett.
None of them are on the clock.
Harper, an 8-year-old Labrador retriever, has spent much of her life at Dawson Place, where staff from five different agencies care for children who have been sexually or physically abused, or have witnessed a violent crime.
Harper’s job has been to sit with children as they recount abuse. Her handler is Gina Coslett, a child interview specialist at Dawson Place.
Harper was trained as a facility dog, meaning most of her career has been helping people inside of that building.
She’s done so much more than that.
Harper provided comfort to students following the fatal shootings at Marysville Pilchuck High School and to rescuers who searched for missing people after the Oso landslide. She’s made children laugh during painful conversations.
“She’s just so precious, and seems to do things at the right moment for a kid,” Coslett said.
In June, doctors found out Harper is sick. She retired from work that day.
Harper came from Canine Companions for Independence, an organization that trains assistance dogs. Each puppy spends two years there before they begin work.
Coslett found out she had to get a dog when she began at Dawson Place about eight years ago. Those who adopt a dog for work also care for them at home.
Coslett wasn’t so sure at first — back then she described herself as a “cat person.” She feels differently now.
“Being told I was going to get a dog has really changed my life in amazing ways,” she said. “All I really want to do now is own a dog farm, and I don’t even know what that means.”
She’s now trying to get another trained dog. It’s a long process, and one she hasn’t done in eight years.
To apply, she’s included a biography, along with photos of her family, home and work place. She’ll have to talk with someone on the phone, then schedule a time to travel to one of the training centers for a day.
Finally, she’ll have to go on a two-week long trip to take tests and work with the dogs. Then it’ll be time to take one home.
In 2014, Harper faced major tragedies that affected people all over the county after only a couple years on the job.
At the Oso landslide, where 43 people were killed, Harper went to the site while search teams were looking for the missing.
Coslett and Harper planted themselves in the room where crews went to rest.
“We just sat there and the dogs roamed around, and people would call to them,” Coslett said. “The dogs would be laying down and rescuers would go lay on the dogs.”
Months later, a teenager opened fire on classmates at Marysville Pilchuck High School, killing four before turning the gun on himself.
Officials cancelled school for about a week. When kids returned, they found Harper waiting.
At first, the pair stayed in the library, where groups of students could sit around her for comfort as they talked with therapists.
“Her main job when kids went back to class was to sit at the desk of one of the girls who was killed,” Coslett said. “So as they went to each class her desk wasn’t empty.”
Students would gather around to pet her as they grieved.
Back in the office, Harper’s job was to comfort children as Coslett talked with them.
Interview rooms are located on a lower floor, in a hallway that stretches no longer than 20 feet. The rooms are small and equipped with cameras so investigators can watch.
Each contains a brown leather couch big enough for two with another chair for Coslett. When a youngster would sit down, Harper knew her place. She would jump up and rest her head on the child’s legs.
Sometimes the child would get lost in their trauma. Often Harper would know to nudge their hand to bring them back to the present. Other times she would do it unintentionally.
“All of the sudden Harper is doing this kind of yelping, deep down inside and her legs are going,” Coslett said. “The kids will say something like, ‘She thinks she’s chasing something, she’s dreaming!’ And they’ll be completely snapped out of something.”
Harper provides just as much comfort to the people who work at Dawson Place as she does to the children who visit.
Coslett often interviews four children a day about the abuse they’ve survived. She’s tried to be aware of how the work has also affected Harper.
Harper’s last day of work was June 13, the day Coslett found out about Harper’s illness.
For now most work has been taken over by another yellow Labrador retriever named Razzle, age 3. Her handler is Heidi Scott, the other child interview specialist at Dawson Place.
“It’s a great start for her to really kind of grasp the job,” Scott said. “She’s got big shoes to fill.”
Though retired, Harper still goes to the office with Coslett. For the past few weeks, children who have met Harper in the past have asked to say goodbye.
Coworkers have been bringing her treats. She wasn’t allowed to indulge before, but Coslett hopes to let her relax in retirement.