By Ed Meyer
Beacon Journal staff report
Summit County prosecutors have a new, user-friendly method to help children and other victims preparing to testify in traumatic criminal cases.
His name is Avery II, a 2-year-old Labrador-golden retriever mix who already is on the job.
Avery, wearing the official blue vest around his neck that lets him know he is working and alerts him to 40 commands, was introduced Monday morning at a news conference attended by agency officials, two retired judges, his handler — Melanie Hart of the prosecutor’s Victim Services division — and more than 45 others who came to see him in action.
On Hart’s commands, Avery responded in a live demonstration as Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh sat in a chair next to the podium.
Hart told Avery: “OK, you want to give Sherri a visit.”
Avery got up from the floor and put his head in Walsh’s lap, just as he would if a victim was in court testifying.
Next command: “OK, now, lap.”
Avery carefully lifted his front legs onto Walsh’s lap and rested his head on her right shoulder.
“This is my favorite!” Walsh said, as the dog stayed there to a round of applause.
Final command: “OK, Avery, off.”
The dog obeyed immediately.
Avery also can bring a box of tissues to a witness, climb onto a child’s lap without hurting or scratching and will not bark while proceedings are in progress.
The dog never made a sound while walking into the crowded room with Hart, and he never flinched as photographers snapped off shots at his eye level.
Avery is an Aug. 17 graduate of a two-year training program at the Canine Companions for Independence regional center in Dublin. He already has worked his first case.
Arriving at the Summit County agency Aug. 19, Avery soon began working with a child rape victim in a specially designed interview room at the prosecutor’s office. The girl was “very, very nervous when she came in about the idea of having to testify,” Walsh said.
It was Wednesday afternoon when the child was introduced to Avery. After spending several hours with him, the girl learned early that evening there had been an unexpected delay in the case.
“She commented to us that if Avery would not have been with her, she would have cried the entire time,” Walsh said.
After court let out that day, the child was told she might have to return to testify Friday.
“When we told her she had to come back the second day,” Walsh said, “the first thing she said was, ‘Well, will I get to see Avery again?’ ”
Told that, yes, she would, the little girl smiled, Walsh said, and assured everyone she would be OK.
“That is exactly what our goal with Avery is,” Walsh said.
The dog not only works with children behind the scenes — in a recently remodeled office with animal photos, a soft sofa, chair and footrest — but also has been trained to sit and lie, for however long it takes, next to the witness stand in actual court proceedings.
“I think it’s marvelous. The animal can be used not only with victims, but it can be used to help any kind of a witness with problems,” retired Summit County Common Pleas Judge Mary Spicer said.
Sallie Carey of New Albany, who attended Monday’s news conference, said she began training Avery when he was 8 weeks old.
He came from Canine Companion headquarters, a Santa Rosa, Calif., nonprofit organization that primarily helps people with disabilities.
“My job is to expose Avery to all kinds of different situations, different people, babies poking and grabbing, or to doctor’s appointments so he knows what nurses and doctors do,” Carey said.
“I take him to the mall with me, to the grocery store. With his vest on, I can take him pretty much everywhere.”
Through all of his training, Avery has remained remarkably calm, she said.
“First of all, he is so handsome, I would get stopped wherever I went. He’s very calm, very loving, and whenever I had him out he always acted so appropriately,” Carey said. “That calm demeanor is really Avery’s most special feature.”
Typically, dogs such as Avery, she said, will be able to work five to seven years.
Walsh said Stow-Kent Animal Hospital and Pet Supplies Plus are partnering with the prosecutor’s office to help pay for Avery’s food and veterinary care.
For more information about Canine Companions, go to www.cci.org.
Ed Meyer can be reached at 330-996-3784 or firstname.lastname@example.org.