Service dog comforts young abuse victims

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EVERETT, Wash. (AP) — Harper is a dainty blonde with a heart for service — and chew toys.

Last month, the 2-year-old Labrador retriever started working at Dawson Place, the county’s child advocacy center that serves more than 1,000 abused children a year.

The center offers centralized assistance for physically and sexually abused children. Medical personnel, counselors, 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 counseling. The center also houses detectives and prosecutors who investigate crimes against children.

As a forensic interview specialist, it’s Gina 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. Harper is a special pooch whose job is to offer kids comfort at times when they may be scared, confused and uncomfortable.

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.

She snuggles with children who are asked to recount 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.

The friendly dog greets the children and sits next to them while Coslett asks questions. Harper lays her head in their laps. 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.

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