4-legged friend to child victims retires

Stilson gave comfort during tense situations

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photoVictim advocate Heidi Potter and her nine-year-old black lab, Stilson, stand to be recognized on July 1 by the Snohomish County Council in Everett for Stilson's years of service in providing comfort to victims of crime.

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EVERETT — Last fall, an 11-year-old girl sat in a Snohomish County courtroom recounting how she repeatedly was whipped with electrical cords, burned with lit cigarettes and starved for days.

It took the child two hours to detail all the abuse she suffered at the hands of the Mukilteo woman who was supposed to care for her.

The girl was not alone up on the witness stand. She had a friend.

Stilson, a gentle 80-pound black Labrador, was lying at her feet. For two hours Stilson held command, not moving or making a sound. He didn't even stir when the defense attorney accidentally knocked over a cup of water on the witness stand.

Stilson had a job to do. He was there to offer the brave girl some comfort, to remind her that she wasn't alone and to reassure her that she was safe.

"I love that dog. I love what he has done for kids and victims. He helps them face what they have to face in the criminal justice system," said Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Lisa Paul, who secured a conviction in the abuse case. "With that girl, I know that Stilson was so important to her. He was like a life ring, something she could hold on to."

In 2006, Stilson became the first service dog used by the Snohomish County Prosecutor's Office. He was the second in the nation to be employed by prosecutors. King County had the first courthouse dog, serving crime victims and witnesses.

Stilson retired earlier this month. His handler and owner, Heidi Potter, the lead victim-witness advocate, is leaving the prosecutor's office for other opportunities. They are moving to California. Stilson likely is going to become a beach bum, spending his days playing in the ocean and people-watching along the California coast.

"He's burned out. He's almost 9 years old and he's worked with hundreds of children. He's had hundreds of kids crying on him and climbing on him," Potter said. "It's time for him just to be a dog. It's time for him not to always be on his best behavior."

Stilson came to work at the courthouse after then-prosecuting attorney Janice Ellis had her friend, Ellen O'Neill-Stephens, a King County deputy prosecutor, give a presentation about a service dog being used in Seattle.

Ellis remembers Potter staying behind, telling her boss she was interested in getting paired up with a service dog. She agreed to undergo the training and have a dog live with her full time. She'd pay for his food and medical bills.

"That was fundamental. If we were going to do it, we needed someone in the office to volunteer," said Ellis, who is now a Snohomish County Superior Court judge.

Potter applied to be matched with a dog provided by Canine Companions for Independence, a private nonprofit group that breeds and trains dogs mainly for people with disabilities.

Stilson first was trained to be with a person with physical disabilities, but he once broke command to go buddy up to a smaller dog. Trainers decided he was better suited for the job at the prosecutor's office.

The trainers saw that Stilson was the kind of dog that wanted to love on people, Potter said. He was willing to receive their stress and let it go, she said.

Stilson helped Potter build rapport with people in tense and stressful situations. Oftentimes, the people Potter met through her work had been through a tragedy. Stilson helped her break the ice and connect with people. And Stilson often was the only comfort child victims had as they were asked to talk about physical and sexual abuse.

The prosecutor's office is planning to get another dog as soon as one becomes available and the handler can be trained with the dog, Potter said.

"It has worked beautifully. Heidi has a lovely demeanor and good nature. Stilson has an equally lovely demeanor," Ellis said. "(Potter's) initiative was very much appreciated. It was a huge gift to the office and the work of the office."