If you have ever been in court for any reason, you know that it can be a harrowing experience. Even traffic court can give a person fits.
But what if there was a friendly helper waiting for you outside the courtroom doors, someone whose warm presence and happy smile made you feel good and helped you to recover?
Enter Oak, a five-year-old black Labrador Retriever with the very special job of comforting people before and after their court testimonies. Oak has worked with the Lewis County Prosecuting Attorney’s office for over two years. Affectionately called their “office dog,” he spends his days, helping both crime victims, and sometimes even criminals, reduce stress and panic before and after their day in court.
Although courtroom dogs are becoming relatively common sights in courtrooms across the country, Oak is the first one here in Lewis County.
“He’s a great stress-reliever,” says Lewis County prosecutor, Jonathan Meyer. “The dog doesn’t see evil.” And because of that Oak is able to help anyone who needs him–even criminals. In his very first case Oak worked with a man charged with homicide by abuse. His presence helped the terrified man to get through his interviews.
In another incident an 80-year-old woman was the victim of a home invasion. The woman was petrified of giving her testimony. She got through it somehow, and Oak met her in the hallway outside the courtroom. They spent the next several hours together, and the woman gradually recovered from the ordeal.
Oak is a common sight in the court building, and his excellent manners make him be seen and not heard. He sits under Meyer’s desk in court so patiently and uncomplainingly that sometimes Meyer forgets he is there. “Um, Mr. Meyer, you’ve forgotten to take your dog with you,” has been heard on more than one occasion in a Lewis County courtroom.
Meyer’s experience with Oak has been so successful that there is now interest in using facility dogs in other smaller Washington counties.
Most courtroom dogs are trained at great expense in either California or Hawaii. There is a long waiting list for such highly-trained dogs. But Meyer lucked into Oak, who was originally trained as a guide dog for the blind.
Oak’s handler, Karlyn Fritz, got him as an eight-week-old puppy. The dog lived with her family for the next 13 months where he learned exceptional public manners and went everywhere with them from dental appointments to camping.
At 15 months Oak began his “professional” guide dog training in Boring, Oregon. He did very well in school and was chosen for additional education. Only the best guide dogs are selected to re-partner a blind person who has lost his original guide dog. Oak was given this difficult task post graduation. After nine months it was decided that the match was not working out; the blind person was not able to adjust to Oak as a second dog. And Oak was retired at age two-and-a-half.
At that point Oak was returned to Karlyn Fritz, who then adopted him. “That was one of the biggest gifts of my life,” says Fritz.
Oak then started a new life as a facility dog. He has been a helper for the Human Response Network, Prosecutor’s Office, Providence Centralia Hospital, as part of a Pet Partner’s Therapy Team and has been to schools helping students recover from crises.
While Oak still practices many of his blind-guiding skills — taking you to the entrance of a building, for example, he has also learned new service skills like picking things up and placing them in your hand, locating and pressing handicap buttons to open doors and turning on drinking fountains. He has learned anxiety and PTSD calming skills and has mentored visiting service dog puppies.
“I consider that Oak has the perfect temperament for a facility dog,” says Fritz. “He is very perceptive about needs, is very friendly and loves to help.”
Oak continues to live with the Fritz family, but Meyer picks him up for work every morning and returns him in the evening.
“He loves his job,” Fritz tells me. “He does a ‘happy dance’ (wiggling) and uses his ‘special voice’ when Jonathan comes to the door. Oak lives to be a helper.”
“We feel fortunate to have him as part of the team,” says Meyer. “We were lucky to get him.”
To learn more about courtroom dogs and the work they do, go to Courthouse Dogs Foundation.