Through Southmountain Children and Family Services, local kids now have a new four-legged friend to lend them a comforting paw during difficult times.
Leroy, a 2-year-old, 73-pound golden retriever/Labrador mix, is a facility dog with Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit organization that trains four types of assistance dogs — service, hearing, facility and skilled companions — to enhance the lives of others through ongoing support.
SCFS has teamed up with Canine Companions, making its local child advocacy centers the first in North Carolina to use a facility dog, said Director Chris Jernigan.
Rhonda Robbins, a victim advocate with SCFS who has worked in CACs for years, went through weeks of training and evaluation in Orlando, Florida, before taking Leroy back to McDowell County with her in February. The two of them will now regularly visit The Gingerbread House in Burke County and Lily’s Place in McDowell County, two SCFS child advocacy centers.
Leroy is not just a regular pet — like all CCI dogs, he was bred in California and cared for by volunteers for the first eight weeks of his life. He spent the next 13-18 months with a volunteer puppy raiser, then six to nine months training with professional instructors, learning more than 40 specialized commands. Leroy is a facility dog, meaning he is highly skilled and trained to “work with a professional in a visitation, education or health care setting,” according to CCI. Only 40 percent of dogs make it through the entire training process, and there is a 10-year waiting list to get one of these well-trained dogs, Robbins said.
Jernigan said close to 500 children are interviewed each year between the Burke and McDowell CACs. Law enforcement or social services contacts them when a child has allegedly been abused, and a trained professional conducts an interview with the child at the center. Medical exams — done by highly skilled sex abuse nurse examiner Beth Browning — also are done in the CACs after an allegation and injuries are documented. Not having to go to a hospital helps the victim keep their situation more private. The centers also provide clinical treatment for the child to help them through life after the abuse.
When a child is faced with the stressful situation of reliving their abuse during the interview, Leroy is now there to help ease their minds. He can play fetch and hide and seek with the kids to help them relax and have fun, or he can just be a comforting fur coat for them to stroke and focus on as they tell their story to an interviewer, Robbins said. He also can be present to help soothe them during a medical exam.
HOW IT WORKS
Jernigan said the idea to bring a dog into the CACs came from him seeing a friend of his with their hearing dog. He and Robbins then both attended a conference last year, where they saw another trained dog, and Robbins offered to work with one representing SCFS.
Since The Gingerbread House opened in 1998, Jernigan said he has seen children really struggle with telling their stories, and he thought a dog could be a source of comfort.
“There’s evidence that proves that the presence of a dog will release chemicals in the brain that help to calm a person down,” he said.
In their initial research, SCFS discovered Leroy works very well with teenagers, since it tends to be harder for them to talk about their experience, Jernigan said.
“When we’re doing interviews, we’re usually talking about sexual abuse — there’s physical abuse and violent crime, but a lot of sexual abuse,” he said. “That is traumatic in itself just talking about that to a stranger.
“The dog makes it a little easier, especially for these teenagers. They can refocus and talk to the dog, focus on the dog and tell all of that to this nonjudgmental person who won’t say a word about it and is still going to love them. They almost forget that this person is the one asking the questions.”
Leroy also will be able to accompany children in court, huddling with them in the witness stand or even sitting in front of them as they tell their story, Robbins said. These dogs are taught to be particularly calm — especially one like Leroy who works with children all day — and he has been exposed to situations where people are often touching him. He has been trained to be in a courtroom setting, along with places like the mall, the movies and traveling on planes.
Leroy was taught to have different behavior during different situations, such as being able to recognize when Robbins is working and when it’s acceptable to rest or play, like at home in the evenings, she said.
“He’s a different dog when he has his vest on,” she said. “When he has that vest on, he knows he’s working, and he’ll go under the table unless I give him a different job. With that vest on, he needs a command and he knows he’s at work.”
Jernigan said Leroy and Robbins will visit the centers when needed, and he will definitely be called for the hard cases with teenagers, and also with children who have disabilities. Leroy will work primarily at The Gingerbread House and Lily’s Place, but will be available to CACs in Watauga and Avery counties if needed.
Robbins said she began bringing Leroy into the local advocacy centers around Valentine’s Day, and so far, she already has seen an immense response from the children. Having the dog around seems to change the entire demeanor of the child.
“Coming here is stressful enough, and having the dog makes it feel like home to them,” she said. “An animal is nonjudgmental and they love you no matter what. They just relax so much more and it helps the child to tell their story and what’s happened to them.”
When she enters The Gingerbread House, Robbins introduces Leroy as a SCFS employee. The child’s eyes immediately light up with excitement, and they are eager to throw a toy for him and pet his head.
Robbins said Leroy has had an impact on her life as well. Although he is not considered her personal pet, she has grown to cherish him and the kindness he offers in a short amount of time. He will belong to CCI for 6-7 years, and she will later have the option to keep him when he retires. Although Leroy’s adoption process wasn’t easy, she is grateful for those she met along the way.
“I was in training with people who were veterans and had been in explosions in Afghanistan — with children who had cerebral palsy, autistic children — the group of people I was with was amazing,” she said. “They were there because it allowed them to become independent. We’re just very fortunate that we lucked into being able to have the dog as fast as we did and be approved (for one). I think it was just meant to be.”
Jernigan serves on the board of CACs of NC, and he is hoping that bringing Leroy in starts a trend and more dogs are able to help more children.
Brianne Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or 828-432-8907.