As soon as Tank, the therapy dog for Summit County’s drug court, walked into court on a recent morning, he rushed over and placed his front paws on the wooden ledge separating the courtroom from the gallery.

The golden retriever wagged his tail as several drug court participants greeted him and petted his head.

“Who is the most special member of our team?” Summit County Common Pleas Judge Joy Malek Oldfield asked the participants and court staff when their weekly session began.

“Oldfield,” one participant guessed. “My counselor,” another chimed in. “Tank,” a third offered.

That was the answer Oldfield was seeking. With this court session, Tank was celebrating his first anniversary with Turning Point, the drug court program.

“Tank is just there to offer comfort,” said Jillian Zetts, the probation officer who works with Tank. “Thanks for allowing him to be part of the program.”

Summit is one of only a handful of counties across Ohio using a therapy dog in a specialty court. Other counties with canine helpers include Scioto, Richland and Portage, where Dao, a golden retriever, assists with a program for people with mental health or substance abuse issues.

 

Lukewarm response

 

Zetts got only a lukewarm response when she first pitched the idea for a therapy dog in drug court.

Zetts, a probation officer in Summit County for three years who also worked for a decade in Portage County, learned about therapy dogs when she attended a national drug court seminar in the summer of 2017. She thought this would be a nice addition in Summit County.

Oldfield and Judge Christine Croce, who oversee Summit County’s two drug court dockets, weren’t so sure.

“What do we need a dog in drug court for?” Croce asked.

Zetts did more research, including reaching out to Portage County and to the Summit County Prosecutor’s Office, where Avery, a Labrador retriever, has assisted crime victims for nearly six years. What she heard was overwhelmingly positive.

Zetts crafted a written proposal for the judges in January 2018 — and they gave her the go-ahead.

Zetts applied for a dog through several programs and was pleased when her request was accepted by Circle Tail, a Cincinnati agency. She liked how the program includes training at Ohio prisons, which she thought was appropriate for a dog that would be working in court.

Zetts went to Cincinnati to meet prospective dogs, but the choice was easy.

“It was love at first sight,” she said of her meeting with Tank, who had been trained at Dayton Correctional Institution.

Tank was a service dog dropout. He was highly intelligent and could master commands but had trouble focusing on one person.

“His true role was as a therapy dog,” Zetts said. “He’s not meant to be with just one person.”

Zetts went through training at Circle Tail and then brought Tank home to live with her and her husband, where the dog has his own bedroom, complete with his name on the wall.

Summit County Common Pleas Court paid Tank's $1,500 adoption fee. His daily expenses are covered by probation services' funds and state money for recovery services. Graham Road Animal Hospital in Cuyahoga Falls is donating vet services.

 

Court debut

 

Zetts’ hope was that Tank would help add a compassion component to drug court, which is offered to offenders who struggle with a drug or alcohol addition.

“If Tank helps one person in the program, he’s worth it,” said Zetts, who supervises drug court participants with Nikki Lambert, another probation officer.

Drug court participants are regularly and randomly tested for drug use, required to appear in court for a review of their progress, rewarded for doing well and sanctioned for not following requirements. Those who successfully complete the program may have their charges dismissed.

Zetts said Tank enjoyed a warm reception from his first day in drug court,  July 9 of last year.

Tank accompanies Zetts to drug court sessions Monday mornings and afternoons, as well as meetings with her clients the rest of the week. He has a large dog bed in her office that clients and their children often sit in and snuggle with Tank. The wall above his bed says, “Love Has Four Paws.”

Zetts said having Tank has made her job easier, opening up lines of communication with her clients. She said many even follow Tank on social media — he’s on Facebook and Instagram — where they can learn about his latest adventures, like swimming.

“I was so excited to get in the pool that I forgot my Speedo,” Tank said in a recent Facebook post that featured photos of him in a baby pool. “This beautiful day has me ready to doggie paddle!”

Tank likes to dress appropriately for court and has a collection of 15 ties, including one for every holiday. For Halloween, Tank wore a Browns jersey and Zetts dressed as a “rufferee.”

During the recent drug court session, Tank sported a red-and-white striped tie, which he sometimes chewed on.

To celebrate Tank’s anniversary, participants each got a cupcake or a cookie after appearing before Oldfield.

Tank stayed close to Zetts while she worked but was never lonely, with participants sitting on the ground beside him. At one point, he stretched on his back while one woman petted his chest and another scratched his belly.

Sarah Shepherd, 29, of Akron, is among the participants who enjoys sitting with Tank. She said seeing him helps her relax.

“In a court setting, comfort — there is not a whole lot of that,” said Shepherd, who has been sober for 8½ months. “Having Tank there is fantastic.”

Michael Holmes-Venoy, 28, of Barberton, also enjoys spending time with Tank.

“It takes people’s mind off being in court,” he said. “It brings a positive outlook to it.”

Zetts expected Tank to be a hit with clients, but was also pleased to see the positive impact he has had on staff, who often give him toys and treats.

When Croce takes a break during her drug court sessions, Tank runs up on the bench to sit with her and they go to her chambers, where he waits beside a cabinet for a treat. The judge said she’s had a complete turnaround on her thinking about Tank.

“I don’t know if we could do it without him,” said Croce, who has a framed photo of her and Tank on her desk.

 

Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705, swarsmith@thebeaconjournal.com and on Twitter: @swarsmithabj.