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One Lab, One Mission: Harper's big job is comforting kids at court

Take it from us – it’s tempting to stop and say hello to every dog we see on the streets of Seattle. (No, seriously – if you haven’t caught on yet, Seattle Refined really loves dogs.) Some of the pups you see are on the job, though. We caught up with viewer Gina Coslett, whose lab, Harper, is one of those working dogs. Harper is a Facility Dog in Snohomish County, and she provides comfort to children who are interviewed during legal proceedings.

Seattle Refined: How did you learn about the program, and how did you get involved?
Gina Coslett: I learned about the Facility Dog Program from Snohomish County. When I was hired as a Child Forensic Interviewer at Dawson Place Child Advocacy Center, there was already a Canine Companion for Independence (CCI) Facility Dog - Stilson, working at the Snohomish County Courthouse with a Victim Advocate who was employed there at the time. I was asked to use Stilson in my interviews with children. At that time it was still a fairly new concept that not all professionals thought was a great idea, including myself. But I did agree to learn how to work Stilson and was provided training by his Handler (I had never had nor wanted a dog, I was a cat person! Wow, was my life about to change!) After spending time with Stilson and seeing how amazing he was with the general public and how calm and how easily he worked with the children, I agreed to work with him in my interviews.

It's important to backtrack a little bit and explain that a forensic interview of a child is a developmentally sensitive and legally sound method of gathering factual information regarding allegations of abuse or exposure to violence. The purpose of a forensic interview in a suspected abuse case is to elicit as much reliable information as possible from the child to help determine whether abuse happened. So this type of interview is not at all therapeutic, and I am not allowed to give comfort to children. The first time I saw Stilson lay across a child's lap and watch the child pet Stilson, and cuddle into Stilson while answering difficult, embarrassing questions related to the trauma they experienced, I was absolutely convinced that this was in the best interest of the child and agreed to work with the dogs. When it was determined that it was time for Stilson to retire, I agreed to apply for the next facility dog and after the application and a year on the waiting list, I was invited to a team training at CCI in Santa Rosa, CA.

Tell us a little about the application process. How did you prepare?
The application process is somewhat involved. I filled out the application, which included answering a lot of questions about my lifestyle, who I lived with, who the dog would be around on a regular basis as well as those same questions regarding the facility where I worked. After submitting my application, I then had a phone interview, and I was invited to a one day in-person interview in Santa Rosa at the CCI facility. I flew down and spent a Friday going over my application in detail, answering questions and working with some of the dogs on campus. After being accepted in the final step I was put on a waiting list to attend a "team training,” with me and a dog. I then attended and and graduated with Harper on October 31, 2012. This was an amazing way to be introduced to dogs and to become a handler of a dog. Once Harper Lea retires, I will adopt her officially. CCI retains ownership until she retires to assure she is appropriately cared for and remains in good health and working condition. Her well-being is overseen by a local vet, whose records go to CCI.

What sort of training did Harper go through on her end of the training process?
About 80 percent of Harper's temperament is due to her genetic makeup, so the breeding of assistance dogs is an art and science in itself. Harper was treated in a very careful controlled manner since the very first day of life in order to result in a dog that has resiliency to stress. She is a professionally trained assistance dog. There are many types of working dogs: dogs for the hearing-impaired to assist them to sounds in the environment, dogs for people with limited mobility to help them with daily tasks, and guide dogs for people who are blind. Facility dogs should be a graduate from a nonprofit assistance dog school which is accredited by Assistance Dogs International (ADI). Harper received training the first two years of her life and was placed with me once she turned two.

What does a typical work day look like for you and Harper?
A typical work day for Harper and I include waking up, having breakfast, playing fetch in the backyard, and/or going for a walk, and then heading into work. Harper will sit with a child through a forensic interview, go to therapy with a child, attend a defense interview with a child, or go to court with a child and their family. Her day can consist of between 1-3 of those things. She gets outside toilet breaks as well as playtime with her best friend and fellow CCI graduate, Lucy, who works at the Snohomish County Courthouse.

What does it mean to you to work with Harper? Are there any moments on the job that have really touched you?
This might sound really mushy, but there is not a day that goes by that I am not grateful for and proud of Harper. Every time we step out into the community she makes at least one person smile. When we walk in downtown people stop to talk or ask questions. Often when I am out and about walking downtown, someone knows Harper and immediately says hello, and I may not even know who that person is. I have had people come up to me and say Harper sat with their grandchild, or they read about her in the newspaper. I have detectives say that parents have looked at our website and seen that we have Harper and Lucy and they think that the only way their child will come in to talk is if we have one of the dogs present. I was especially proud of Harper when a child became very upset in an interview and began crying and covering her face and Harper sat up and licked her hand and the child buried her face in Harper, and once again began talking and then told me that she believed that Harper loved her. I was so proud when we were asked to go to the command station after the OSO mudslide and let Harper provide comfort for the search and rescue teams, and then my ultimate proud moment was watching Harper provide comfort at Marysville Pilchuck School after they endured a horrible school shooting.

Finally, what’s one thing Harper loves to do when she’s “off the clock?”
I have since gotten a puppy, and Harper loves him. He is a little guy and they love to roll around, and it’s sweet to see Harper be so gentle with him too. She also loves to play with Lucy; they run like crazy labs and slam into each other. It’s awesome to see her play like a regular dog. She works so hard.

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