Ottawa Citizen

Com­fort for abused chil­dren

Some­times a friendly ca­nine can make it eas­ier for chil­dren to talk to about their hurt, writes DIANA HE­FLEY.

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Harper is a dainty blond with a heart for ser­vice — and chew toys. Last month, the two-year-old Labrador re­triever started work­ing at Daw­son Place, the county’s child ad­vo­cacy cen­tre that serves more than 1,000 abused chil­dren a year.

Harper is a spe­cial pooch whose job is to of­fer kids com­fort at times when they may be scared, con­fused and un­com­fort­able.

She snug­gles with chil­dren who are asked to re­count hor­rific crimes com­mit­ted against them. Her coat of­ten soaks up their tears. Harper senses when kids need to be nuz­zled or when a good dog trick will chase away the hurt.

Chil­dren of­ten leave her side, say­ing, “I think she loves me. I think she’s go­ing to miss me.”

Since she was a puppy, Harper has been raised to be a ser­vice dog. She re­ceived ex­ten­sive train­ing through the Cal­i­for­nia-based Ca­nine Com­pan­ions for In­de­pen­dence.

Her han­dler, child in­ter­view spe­cial­ist Gina Coslett, had been wait­ing al­most a year to be paired with Harper. Coslett was con­vinced that she wanted a ca­nine part­ner af­ter work­ing with an­other ser­vice dog named Stilson.

Stilson, a stocky black Labrador, works in the Sno­homish County Pros­e­cu­tor’s Of­fice and has helped out at Daw­son Place.

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

He was so good at his job that peo­ple were con­vinced that Daw­son Place also should use a ser­vice dog to help child vic­tims.

The cen­tre of­fers cen­tral­ized as­sis­tance for phys­i­cally and sex­u­ally abused chil­dren.

Med­i­cal per­son­nel, coun­sel­lors, ad­vo­cates, state case­work­ers, pros­e­cu­tors and po­lice are avail­able in the same build­ing to help stream­line as­sis­tance to chil­dren and their fam­i­lies.

Chil­dren and teens re­ceive free med­i­cal ex­ams, men­tal health as­sess­ments and coun­selling. The cen­tre also houses de­tec­tives and pros­e­cu­tors who in­ves­ti­gate crimes against chil­dren.

Now, through a part­ner­ship, the county’s law en­force­ment agen­cies all pay for Coslett’s salary and Harper’s ex­penses, said Mary Wahl, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor at Daw­son Place.

Harper lives with Coslett and has be­come a part of the fam­ily. She’s even teach­ing Coslett’s other dog, Duca, a minia­ture Pin­scher and rat ter­rier mix, some much-needed man­ners.

“They really are best friends,” Coslett said.

Harper loves to play, chase balls and buddy around with other dogs, but when her work vest is on she’s all busi­ness.

As a foren­sic in­ter­view spe­cial­ist, it’s Coslett’s job to ask chil­dren about al­leged crimes, ei­ther com­mit­ted against them or wit­nessed by them. She must re­main neu­tral and dis­con­nected from the emo­tions that of­ten fill the room dur­ing th­ese in­ter­views. She can’t hug the child or of­fer them any com­fort­ing words. There is no par­ent with the child and Coslett isn’t a ther­a­pist. That’s not her role.

“It’s so hard not to reach out, whether I be­lieve them or not,” said Coslett, a mom and grand­mother. That’s where Harper comes in. The friendly pooch greets the chil­dren and sits next to them while Coslett asks ques­tions. She lays her head in their laps. Small hands pet her shiny coat. Some­times it is eas­ier for chil­dren to talk to her about their hurt than to the adult in the room. Harper won’t leave their side un­til Coslett gives the com­mand.

Coslett said it is re­mark­able to see the dog fol­low a child’s cues. She senses when to get closer with­out be­ing told. Harper can smell stress and fear.

“She knows she’s there to com­fort,” Coslett said. “She takes over and knows what to do.”

The kids also like her tricks. She can turn off lights, give a high-five and carry her own leash. It’s heart­en­ing to hear a child’s laugh or see him smile af­ter hear­ing about his pain in such de­tail, Coslett said. Harper pro­vides some of that heal­ing.

The Labrador was named af­ter Harper Lee, the au­thor of To Kill a Mock­ing­bird.

The book re­flects on jus­tice, do­ing the right thing and love, Coslett said. Harper seemed like a fit­ting name for a dog with so much heart.

 ?? DAN BATES/THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS ?? Child in­ter­view spe­cial­ist Gina Coslett demon­strates how Harper, a two-year-old Labrador re­triever, is trained to com­fort abused chil­dren who are be­ing asked to talk about what they’ve suf­fered.
DAN BATES/THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS Child in­ter­view spe­cial­ist Gina Coslett demon­strates how Harper, a two-year-old Labrador re­triever, is trained to com­fort abused chil­dren who are be­ing asked to talk about what they’ve suf­fered.

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