Dog comforts children awaiting court appearances

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Court proceedings can be both mystifying and nerve-wracking for adults. Children may be even more discombobulated, and hearings, for any number of reasons, may not take place as scheduled, causing delays that may increase participants’ anxiety. This is no one’s idea of a tail-wagging good time.


To comfort them as they await what can be life-changing court hearings, a dog and her owner have a special mission from the Washington County Children and Youth Services agency, which handles cases of suspected child abuse and neglect.


Dottie, a yellow Labrador retriever who was named for the black birthmark on her back, is certified by Therapy Dogs International, a nonprofit organization in Flanders, N.J.


In conjunction with National Child Abuse Prevention Month in April, Dottie’s owner and handler, Amy Harakal of Peters Township found it appropriate to discuss how Dottie landed in court. Not a courtroom, but in a waiting room in the Family Court Center for those headed into hearings.


As a 6-month-old puppy, Dottie was easy to train.


“I needed a calm, drama-free household,” Harakal said. “I was determined to have a well-mannered dog. My goal was that my children had to be able to walk her and not have fear of her pulling them or be able to play with her in the front yard without her running out into the street.”


Dottie was so cooperative Harakal felt the dog was destined for bigger and better things.


“I had the perfect dog,” Harakal said.


Dottie was easily trained to heel when walking on a leash, learned obedience and is whistle-command trained for hunting.


The Harakal family pet passed a test to become an American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen which, Harakal said, “I think humans should have to take to be well-mannered.”


Dottie progressed to become a certified therapy dog, so Harakal was ready to find an outlet.


“As my children got older, I hoped to find something I could do to give back to the community,” Harakal said, her voice breaking as she spoke of her mother as an inspiration: “She’s very sick right now.” Virginia Gunn of Bristol, Tenn., is both a dog-lover and philanthropist, her daughter said.


As a long-time supporter of county commission Vice Chairman Diana Irey Vaughan, a mutual friend proposed introducing a therapy dog to CYS clients.


“I’m going to say it took us about a year,” Harakal recalled. “I’ve known Diana Irey Vaughan long enough to know once she gets involved, no pun intended, she’s dogged.”


Irey Vaughan said she learned of Dottie at a banquet for Court-Appointed Special Advocates, known as CASA volunteers. As head of Washington County’s Children and Youth Task Force, she floated the proposal on Harakal’s behalf. The task force decided to screen the dog-and-human duo. Humans are certainly never silent at job interviews, but Dottie never barked, which was a plus.


“She had a very soothing effect on anyone she came into contact with,” said Irey Vaughan, who noted Dottie melted hearts whenever she placed her head on a lap.


Dottie, now 10 years old, first came to court last fall, charming even the gruffest of sheriff’s deputies who spend their day checking everyone who enters the courthouse for weapons, whether canine or human.


Dottie and Harakal head for the family court in the basement of the old jail building. “Before I approach or walk in, I will say, ‘Is everyone OK with dogs?’


“I walk into room with Dottie and people tell me, ‘My dog would never sit (still) like this.’”


The dog weighs 80 pounds, so her size may intimidate tykes. Other children, regardless of size, don’t like dogs or are afraid of them. If that’s the case, Dottie keeps her distance.


Service dogs typically wear vests to identify them as such, but Dottie is clad only in her natural fur.


“People assume she’s a service dog and they aren’t to be petted,” Harakal said, so she sometimes has to explain that Dottie is at the courthouse specifically to be petted.


Although Washington County has not yet allowed a child to hold onto a dog for support while testifying in court, Harakal is hopeful that will happen someday. Irey Vaughan said a dog could also have a soothing effect on a child who is being interviewed about suspected abuse.


Washington County Family Court is not Dottie’s sole destination as a therapy dog. “I also visit hospice patients with her,” Harakal said of her forays to McMurray, Bethel Park and Baldwin. “At least once a month we go and do that, too.”


Therapy animals seem to be a natural fit with members of the Harakal family. Her 18-year-old daughter, for example, is planning a career in equine-assisted psychotherapy.


Harakal sees no reason why Dottie has to remain top dog in the courthouse.


“My goal,” Harakal said, “is to have Dottie and I be one of 10 dog-and-owner teams.”


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