Crime victims and witnesses now have a four-legged support system in Summit County.
On Aug. 26, Summit County Prosecuting Attorney Sherri Bevan Walsh introduced Avery II, her office's new facility dog.
Avery is a specially trained 2-year-old Labrador-Golden Retriever mix whose purpose is to help crime victims and witnesses overcome the fears and stress that often result from participation in a criminal case.
"The criminal justice system can cause what is known as 'secondary victimization' to people who have already been traumatized. Children and people with disabilities can be especially fearful of talking about a traumatic situation in front of a courtroom full of strangers. Even coming to our office to talk with a prosecutor can be scary," said Walsh. "Avery is specially trained to soothe victims so that they can clearly communicate what they've been through."
Avery will be on hand to put victims of traumatic felony-level crimes at ease while meeting with the prosecutor handling that case. Avery can also accompany children or disabled victims when they have to appear in court.
The canine actually has an official job description with the county: "Avery helps to ensure the criminal justice system arrives at a truthful resolution by calming victims and witnesses so that they can confidently and accurately testify."
Avery will live with his handler, Melanie Hart; his backup handler is Jean Johnson. According to April Wiesner, communications director for the prosecutor's office, both are longtime employees of the prosecutor's office; Hart is an administrative assistant for both Walsh and the Victim Services Division, while Johnson is a courtroom secretary. Avery will come to work each day to the prosecutor's office, as well as accompany a child to a court hearing or attend an event for kids.
Wiesner said Green County is the only other prosecutor's office that utilizes a facility dog. In that county, the facility dog works at the child advocacy center.
Canine Companions for Independence trained and provided the county with Avery at no cost. CCI, founded in 1975 and fully accredited by Assistance Dogs International, is a non-profit that provides assistance dogs and ongoing support to people with disabilities.
CCI trains dogs in four assistance categories: service dogs, skilled companions, hearing dogs and facility dogs. Before being matched with a facility and handler, each canine must undergo two years of intensive training, followed by one week of training with its handler. CCI does not charge to provide assistance dogs.
Avery's veterinary care will be provided free of charge by Stow Kent Animal Hospital, 4559 Kent Road in Stow.
Wiesner said Walsh was familiar with the veterinary practice, as she brings her cats there, so she approached them about helping to keep the costs down for taxpayers.
"Stow Kent Animal Hospital wishes to thank Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh and the Summit County Prosecutor's Office for allowing us to be participants in this exciting program," said Dr. Thomas Albers, who started the practice in 1967 with his wife, Carmela. "Stow Kent Animal Hospital and Dr. [Douglas] Paroff are excited to begin this new endeavor and are honored to be chosen as the providers of Avery's health care so that he may look forward to many years of providing emotional support to the citizens of Summit County."
Paroff, who has been in practice for 13 years, will provide all of Avery's care, including vaccinations, routine checkups, pest prevention medications and emergency care.
All of his food, grooming and other supplies are being donated by Pet Supplies Plus.
"Pet Supplies Plus is delighted to meet all of Avery's grooming needs and to partner with Eukanuba to provide his food supply," said Dave Bolen, CEO of Pet Supplies Plus. "This is an excellent opportunity for us to be a part of our local neighborhood and support a very valuable service."
Avery, whose birthday is Aug. 1, weighs just under 70 pounds and lived with a puppy raiser for his first 15 months. There he learned to follow basic commands and how to behave in public as an assistance dog. He then went to a training organization for testing and screening. Avery then spent six months learning specialized commands and doing role-playing in a variety of work environments.
According to the prosecutor's office, Avery likes to chase tennis balls and chew on his squeaky porcupine. He also has a page on Facebook; search for Avery II. He already had more than 320 "likes" as of press time in his first week on the job.
"I am encouraged by the community's support for our new facility dog program, and I am grateful to Canine Companions for Independence, Stow Kent Animal Hospital and Pet Supplies Plus for partnering with us," said Prosecutor Walsh. "Avery will help many crime victims in Summit County."