As any dog lover can attest, dogs have the power to comfort and provide much-needed companionship, even during our darkest days. Thanks to the hard work of Seattle Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Page Ulrey, courthouse dogs are now offering that comfort to local children when they need it most: while testifying or being interviewed about traumatic crimes.
The Power of Courthouse Dogs
Ulrey first became interested in the power of courthouse dogs when a colleague began to bring her son’s service dog to work at the Juvenile Court—a dog she had found through Canine Companions for Independence (CCI).
“My colleague, Ellen, noticed how the kids in court lit up when they saw the dog, and how much comfort they derived from being able to have contact with him,” she explains. “As a result, she began to use the dog during victim interviews and in Juvenile Drug Court.”
Ulrey had already been considering getting a dog, and Ellen was able to convince her—and then their entire office—to apply for a facility dog who would work with children, elders, and adults with disabilities.
“The kids in court lit up when they saw the dog.” — Page Ulrey
“Facility dogs are trained to work with people in a particular location such as a school, hospital, or rehab facility,” Ulrey explains. And so, their quest to find the perfect facility dog began.
The Rocky Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship
Ulrey was invited to participate in an intensive six-day training session at CCI, after which—if she passed—she’d receive her dog.
“There were six facility dogs available for the five people in our class,” Ulrey explains. “The dogs were all black or yellow labs, golden retrievers, or mixes of the two breeds. Each dog was about two years old and had been through many months of rigorous training.”
Over the next several days, she received intensive training on how to handle, care for, and understand these incredible dogs. The first five dogs she worked with were great—sweet, responsive, and eager to please. But the last dog—Brielle—well, that was a different experience. Ulrey explains:
“The first command I gave Brielle upon meeting her was a simple ‘let’s go,’ which simply tells the dog to walk with you on your left side. As I began to move forward, I felt the leash tighten. I looked down at Brielle and she looked up at me with her dark-brown, dead-serious eyes, and refused to move.
“‘Brielle,’ I said, deepening my voice and standing up straighter, ‘let’s go.’ She continued to stare at me, with a look that, at the risk of anthropomorphizing her, I can only describe as disdain.
“One of the trainers, seeing my predicament, came over and took my place. She gave Brielle her third ‘let’s go,’ this time accompanied by a sharp yank on the leash that was attached to her choke collar. I flinched. Brielle began to walk.
“The trainer handed me back the leash. Over the course of my afternoon with her, Brielle doled out a few positive responses to my commands, but for the most part made it plain that she and I were not meant to be.
“That evening, the trainers were scheduled to meet to decide which student would receive which dog. Before their meeting, they gave us a form to fill out, on which we were to list which dog we wanted, from most to least.
“There was a little black lab who was particularly sweet and eager to please who I thought would be perfect for me. But I decided instead to bypass the ranking entirely, writing confidently, “any dog but Brielle.”
“The other students and I spent the evening nervously speculating about which dog we would each receive.
“The next morning, we sat in our seats in the training room as each of the freshly-bathed dogs was trotted out by the trainers and placed with their new owners. I watched as one by one, each of the dogs I had worked with so well was led to one of my classmates.
“The woman sitting next to me shrieked with delight when one of the trainers walked up to her with the little black lab. From the corner of my eye, I saw another trainer begin to approach me with Brielle in tow. She led the dog up to me and placed her yellow and blue braided leash in my hand. I forced a smile.
“‘Page, we know this isn’t what you were expecting. But the dog we place with you is going to be working in an emotionally charged, sometimes chaotic environment, so she needs to be very poised and self-confident. We think Brielle will be perfect for you.’
“I looked down at Brielle and she looked back at me, unblinking. I reached my hand down and gently scratched her behind her right ear, noticing how soft her fur was.
“That evening, Brielle—who I learned was nicknamed ‘Ellie‘—slept in my room rather than in the kennel that had been her home for the past nine months.
“I began to feed her her meals—an essential step towards reducing her suspicion of me, I came to realize.
“Over the course of the next several days, as Ellie and I began to develop a bond, she became increasingly responsive to my commands.
“By the time of our graduation, I realized that she was, indeed, the perfect dog for our office, not to mention for me.”
Ellie in the Courtroom
Ellie now serves as a courthouse dog, comforting and providing companionship for children when they most need it: during interviews or when taking the stand. Ulrey walked us through how Ellie meets these children, and how they’re able to quickly bond.
“Whenever Ellie is needed for an interview of a child abuse victim, our child interviewer brings the child to my office to pick her up. I talk to the child for a few minutes and introduce her to Ellie, showing her a few of Ellie‘s more popular tricks.
“Then I hand the child the leash and ask her if she’ll take care of Ellie for me during the interview. The child invariably agrees, grateful to be given something to be responsible for in this situation over which she has so little control.
“The child interviewer then escorts the child and Ellie to the interview room. When they come back to my office afterwards, the child and Ellie are fast friends. Often, we spend a few more minutes together while we talk about Ellie and the child says good-bye to her.”
As a service dog, Ellie has a unique ability to sooth and comfort. “She exudes calmness, kindness, and empathy,” Ulrey explains. “These qualities are of tremendous appeal to people young and old who have been victimized and have to tell a stranger or a courtroom full of strangers about their experience.
“She exudes calmness, kindness, and empathy.” — Page Ulrey, on Ellie.
“I also think that giving a child the responsibility of taking care of Ellie gives them a sense of dignity in the difficult and sometimes humiliating experience of participating as a victim in a criminal trial.”
The Challenges of Being a Courthouse Dog
Life as a courthouse dog has its challenges. Rather than spending the day with their human guardian, courthouse dogs are passed between people, which can be frightening. Furthermore, courthouse dogs by definition work with people in their darkest moments. Ulrey explains:
“They are often working with people who are in crisis or in a great deal of pain. Given how sensitive and empathetic they are, I think this takes a toll on them.”
Ulrey does her best to ensure Ellie has plenty of down time and relaxation outside of work: “I try hard to get Ellie to the park every day so she can get away from us humans and just be a dog for a while.”
Making an Impact
Over the last ten years, Ellie has touched hundreds of lives. But one case was especially memorable. Ulrey explains:
“Several years ago, she worked with a developmentally disabled man who lost his life savings as a result of financial exploitation. Ellie sat with him during the hours that he had to testify in court.
“After the trial, the defendant appealed his conviction, claiming that Ellie‘s presence caused the jury to be biased in favor of the victim, and thus the prosecution.
“The Washington State Supreme Court disagreed, ruling that in cases where it can be shown there is a compelling need, a victim may be accompanied by a skilled facility dog.”
Ellie helps humans through their hardest moments, and improves their lives when they need it most. We’re all grateful for the service she and Page Ulrey provide to Seattle children and everyone who passes their way.