Have you ever noticed the calming effect a dog can have on a stressful or uncomfortable situation? Tension just seems to dissipate when a pup comes into the picture. And that is clearly what happens when rescue dog Harley struts through the front doors of the Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC) of Sullivan County in Tennessee.
The CAC offers counseling for young victims of sexual and physical abuse. It’s also where the children who have been harmed disclose what happened to them and information is gathered that can be used in court. It’s scary. No, it’s horrifying. And for the professionals who do what’s called the “forensic interview,” it’s heartbreaking.
There had been talk about getting a therapy dog at the CAC. Something had to be done to make the intense environment a little more comfortable for the children. But therapy dogs are expensive, and the funding just wasn’t there.
That’s when CAC board member and Appalachian Animal Hospital veterinarian Dr. Karen Stone came up with the idea to bring in Harley.
“Harley has a PhD in comforting people,” said Dr. Stone. Her family adopted Harley from the Johnson City/Washington County, Tennessee Animal Shelter. Her son absolutely fell in love with the “Bassett wannabe.”
The family already had two other dogs but Harley never seemed to really click with her backyard playmates.
“She was much more social with people than with dogs,” said Dr. Stone. “She really is a people dog.”
And there’s nobody who needs her more than the people who come through the doors of the Children’s Advocacy Center. They’re dealing with horrors that no one should ever have to think about.
“Kids will open up a lot more if they can pet a dog while talking to you,” said Dr. Stone. “If they’ve been traumatized, to have a wet nose and floppy ears next to you, it’s the most wonderful distractor in the world.”
Forensic interviewer Amy Bachman remembers a 5-year-old girl with a severe disability who found a new purpose when she became pals with Harley.
“She was barely verbal,” said Bachman. “She had to have a lot of help doing things, but she could walk Harley by herself.”
Each time this quiet little blonde with the darling curly hair would arrive at the CAC, she would immediately look for Harley. Time to do her job!
“We would fix the leash for her and she’d walk Harley around the CAC for about 15 or 20 minutes,” said Bachman. “You could see the joy in her face when she was able to do something by herself.”
Harley is at the CAC on a daily basis. When she has a day off, she’s missed. Children know that when they come in all they have to do is ring the bell at the front desk and Harley will run out to greet them.
One particular 12-year-old was extremely nervous when she came in for that very scary interview. She was going to have to talk to a stranger about the trauma she’d undergone. A necessity in order to move forward with the legal process and to begin therapy – an important step in the healing process.
“She was fidgety, but Harley sat there patiently while the girl nervously petted her and stroked her,” said Gena Frye, the CAC’s executive director. “Harley is that calming influence.”
It’s hard to explain, but it’s the simple act of being present.
“She doesn’t do anything, if that makes sense,” said Frye. “She just has a way of looking at you with those big, brown, soulful eyes that tells you everything.”
It’s going to be okay.
And in between visits, Harley gets some down time.
“She has a bed in my office,” laughed Frye. “Everybody stops by to see her. She gets a lot of attention and treats – mostly fat free because she’s a little chunky.”
The CAC handles about 1,100 allegations of sexual and physical abuse and neglect each year. They did more than 200 forensic interviews in 2015.
Even for the professionals, it’s an emotional roller coaster. They’re dealing with deep, traumatic and heavy stuff. The tension can be palpable.
“When we have our child abuse investigative meetings, you can tell when the energy in the room is getting a little high,” said Frye.
Enter Harley. Her presence at the CAC had an unexpected and truly welcome effect on the grownups.
“She picks up on stress,” said Frye. “She walks around and gets petted by everyone. She’s sensitive to feelings and helps people relax.”
And there’s another reason Harley likes to show up at meetings. She’s a chow hound.
“She’s been known to scarf a few biscuits,” said Gena. “We caught her slurping coffee once but nobody puts theirs on the floor anymore.”
Harley and her handlers have been through H.A.B.I.T. (Human-Animal Bond in Tennessee) training at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine. You can read more about their program and available resources by visiting the website.
It’s become Harley’s job to be at the CAC, but you could hardly call her a working dog.
“Could you imagine going to work where you have your own bed, toys,” said Frye. “And being told all day long how sweet you are and what a good girl you are, then you get to nap, get petted. People ooh and aah over her.”
Certainly a nice life for Harley, but it’s hard to measure what this former shelter dog has done for the children and workers of the CAC.
“She’s brought a warm presence to something that is horrible,” said Dr. Karen Stone.
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