By Nathalie Hardy • Columnist • 

Comfort dog clocks in at courthouse

Ossie Bladine / News-Register
Marybeth the comfort dog.
Ossie Bladine / News-Register
Marybeth the comfort dog.

A 2-year-old labrador retriever mix, Marybeth became Oregon’s first courthouse comfort dog when she reported for duty last week. And District Attorney Brad Berry could hardly contain his happiness.

Berry has been trying for two years to land the services of a comfort dog. When he finally succeeded, he traveled to California with Sarah Grabner, a crime victims advocate in his office, to meet Marybeth in person and spend a week training with her.

Berry said he and Grabner were able to bring the dog back after graduating from a brief but intense training program staged by Canine Companions for Independence in Santa Rosa. “A 62-pound bouncing baby girl came to us,” he said of his staff’s newest addition.

He first introduced her around the office, holding her by a blue leash matching the blue scarf that indicates she’s on duty. Then she got down to work, helping comfort the grieving family of the victim in a murder case that went to trial last week.

Berry said acclimation of his office’s furry colleague seemed to be going well.

“People have taken to her,” he said. “She’s become pretty popular in the office and around the building.”

When she’s working, Marybeth dons her scarf, becoming a comfort dog on the clock. But when she sheds her work garb, she grabs her favorite Kong chew toy, signaling she’s ready to play.

Berry said she is as active as any other young lab mix, but displays a decidedly mellow demeanor.

“She is trained to maintain calm, and not to be reactive,” he said. “She is perfect for the type of work we will be doing with her.”

Initially, she will work primarily with victims of sexual assault, particularly children. Victims and witnesses in domestic violence cases will also be offered access.

“I believe she will be a benefit to all who use her,” Berry said.

“The criminal justice system is quite stressful for victims and witnesses who did not choose to be here. Marybeth will provide stress relief and be a very calming influence on those who choose to engage with her.”

He said the aim is to simply allow the natural dynamic to develop.

“Emotions travel down the leash,” he said, but Marybeth is trained to provide a consistently calming presence in response. Her gentle demeanor is absorbed by those who reach out to her, helping them alleviate their stress, he said.

“It’s really interesting how often someone is telling their story and without thinking about it, they just start petting her,” he said. “It comes naturally and that’s exactly by design.

“She puts people at ease. Interacting with her is reassuring and comforting.”

He said, “When people are crying or otherwise upset, she places her head in their lap. She leans close to them as they recount difficult details of what are most likely some of the most stressful moments in their life.”

Berry was first approached about the program in his capacity as co-chair of the National District Attorneys Association Victims Advocacy Committee. The pitch was made by the Courthouse Dogs Foundation, and it struck home for him.

Yamhill County was accepted into the program, and placed on a Canine Companions for Independence waiting list, in December 2012.

But before the agreement could be finalized, CCI had to find a good match and put her through intensive training. And Berry needed to raise $11,000 to cover the cost.

Berry reached out to former county sheriff Lee Vasquez and his wife, Erma, for help with funding. They staged a benefit for the program and private donors paid the rest.

Berry said Marybeth’s care and feeding during her estimated 8-10 year working life figures to run another $20,000.

But he said the Newberg Veterinary Hospital has offered to cover her veterinary care and Randy Freeman of Pet Stop Inn to assist with supplies and other necessities.

“She’s a tremendous asset,” Berry said of his new canine groundbreaker. “While she’s the first, I know she won’t be the last.”

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