Prince William social services has furry new tool to help kids in crisis - INSIDENOVA.COM: Lifestyles

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Prince William social services has furry new tool to help kids in crisis

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Posted: Saturday, March 1, 2014 12:00 pm

Meyer, a 2-year-old Labrador retriever, spent the President’s Day holiday running and playing in the snow, chasing kids on sleds.

But the next day, like any good government employee, he was at work.

It was Meyer’s first day on the job as a facility dog for Prince William County’s Department of Social Services.

Meyer was trained by Canine Companions for Independence, a non-profit assistance dog group, and his role will be to comfort children involved in social services investigations while they are being interviewed in the social services office or at the police station, said Janine Sewell, the county’s director of social services.

While at the social services office, Meyer will be handled mainly by family services worker Sarah Weatherford, who met Meyer Feb. 3 when she traveled to CCI’s campus in Medford, N.Y., for an intensive two-week training program with him. In the evenings and on the weekends, Meyer will live at home with Weatherford and on workdays he’ll come to the office with her.

“It’s interesting to see how different he is at home and at the office,” Weatherford said.

At home, on his off time, Meyer is free to run and play and be a regular pet dog, Weatherford said. But at work, when he wears the blue vest that designates him as a facility dog, he is calm, attentive and waits for his commands.

“He’s much more playful at home,” Weatherford said. “Here is a calming presence.”

Last year Sewell began looking into using a therapy dog in the social services department and around the same time Weatherford was doing her own research on therapy dogs used in child advocacy centers. The pieces began to fall in to place and the department applied to get a facility dog through CCI. They were accepted into the program just before Christmas and since then have been busy preparing the social services office for Meyer’s arrival. The office has laminated “dog on premises” signs that will be hung when Meyer is around and there will soon be a gate on Weatherford’s office door, where Meyer will spend his time when he’s not working.

On a recent morning, social services employees welcomed Meyer to the office with a reception, complete with a “Welcome Meyer” cake and a basket full of dog toys for him.

A few of the employees’ children were on hand to welcome Meyer with excited hugs and petting.

In a conference room, Weatherford showed 7-year-old Arlet Ugarte how to calmly invite Meyer over to greet her. Arlet sat in a chair and when Weatherford gave him the command “visit,” the dog laid his head on the girl’s lap.

That is one way Meyer will be able to comfort children during interviews at the social services office, Weatherford said. He may also sit next to them, lay at their feet or place his paws on their lap.

“He will be used in interviews with children who experienced abuse, to be a comfort to them while they talk about that trauma,” Weatherford said.

Social services workers will ask the children if they would like to visit with Meyer, and if any child is scared or does not like dogs, he won’t be used in their interview, Sewell said.

Sewell said she anticipates that Meyer will be busy.

“I think once people understand why he is here, he will be used widely,” she said.

County officials believe that Meyer is the first facility dog to be placed in a local social services department. In Virginia, Canine Companions for Independence, which also trains therapy dog, guide dogs and assistance dogs for people with disabilities, has also trained facility dogs in place at the Stafford County Courthouse and the Norfolk child advocacy center. Nationwide, the group has placed 59 facility dogs with criminal justice professionals in 23 states, county officials said.

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