In 2006, Stilson, a Labrador, became the first service dog to be used by the Snohomish County Prosecutor’s Office. King County had the first courthouse dog, serving crime victims and witnesses. He was the second in the nation to be employed by prosecutors.
The Labrador came to work at the courthouse after then-prosecuting attorney Janice Ellis had her friend, Ellen O’Neill-Stephens, a King County Prosector, 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 non-profit that breeds and trains dogs mainly for people with disabilities.
The Labrador was first trained to be with a person with physical disabilities, but he once broke command to go buddy up to a smaller dog. Trainers figured out 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.
This amazing dog helped Potter build rapport with people in tense and stressful situations. Often times the people Potter met through her work had been through a tragedy. Stilson helped her break the ice and connect with people. And the dog was often the only comfort children victims had as they were asked to talk about physical and sexual abuse.
He’d nuzzle up to them on the couch. They’d pet him and giggle over his cool tricks. Some children talked directly to Stilson about the abuse.
Potter remembers that his 6 six months of being in interviews with children Stilson would come home dog-tired. He’d eat dinner and sleep the rest of the night. He absorbed the grief and hurt, Potter said.
Prosecuting attorney Mark Roe was skeptical in the beginning about having a dog work with victims. “I thought our circus was enough of a zoo already without adding animals,” he said. Then he saw the Labrador interact with child victims. The dog changed the prosecutor’s mind. “Stilson is the least we can do for those kids,” Roe said.
Stilson’s 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.”.
Potter expects Stilson will do a lot more napping and playing, but mostly napping, once he’s retired.
“He deserves to just be a dog for the last few years of his life,” she said.
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