Astro is ready for his first day in court.
The service dog provides comfort for sexually abused children during forensic interviews and courtroom trials.
Astro recently finished training in Hawaii to become a fully certified courthouse dog who accompanies children as they testify. In fact, the 2-year-old service dog went through a mock trial Friday at the Thurston County Courthouse to further prepare him for the real thing.
Astro is three-quarters yellow Labrador, one-quarter golden retriever. With a tranquil presence and kind eyes, the dog connects with children in ways adults cannot.
The bulk of Astro’s work takes place at the Monarch Children’s Justice and Advocacy Center in Lacey, which shares a building with county prosecutors and therapists. The building itself is a main entry point that serves more than 600 children a year. The dog will sit by children during interviews, medical exams and more during the lengthy process leading up to court.
“We get to be part of the healing,” said center director Tambra Donohue, who also trained in Hawaii as Astro’s main handler. “By the time he is with them, you can just see the kids calm down and smile.”
Roni Jensen, a forensic interviewer at the center, said service dogs like Astro make children feel safe enough to disclose what happened to them.
“Children might not want to talk to a stranger,” said Jensen. “But an animal isn’t a stranger, and they will often turn and talk and tell their story to a dog.”
Lisa Wahl, an advanced registered nurse practitioner, said children trust Astro and easily open up to the dog.
“When was your last sexual experience?” asked Wahl, showing how adults might feel when answering that question in front of a stranger — even if the sex was consensual. Wahl noted that children often don’t know the words to describe what happened to them and that Astro is a valuable tool for helping the children heal.
“Astro is my mediator,” she said.
Prosecutors in King County pioneered the use of courthouse dogs in 2003, when a trained service dog was allowed to accompany twin sisters while they testified at trial. The sisters were victims of sexual abuse, allegedly at the hands of their father. According to The Seattle Times, one of he girls was nervous to talk about the abuse in front of the jury. However, with a courthouse dog sitting at her feet, the girl was able to talk about the dog’s private parts so that the jury would understand what happened.