vanessa-newVanessa Remmers covers Stafford County government and schools for and The Free Lance-Star.

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Black Lab joins courthouse staff next week

The newest member of the staff in Stafford’s courthouse starts work on Tuesday. After a year and a half of initial job training, he spent the past two weeks learning all about his new role in the courthouse with a new co-worker. He will move to Stafford over the weekend and start work after the holiday.

This employee will be on all fours and quite furry – Kahn is a black Labrador retriever.

Kahn will join the Commonwealth Attorney’s Victim-Witness Office in the hopes of making the system a little easier on those who have to go through it, especially children, who may sometimes feel re-victimized during the process.

Juanita Maley of the Victim-Witness Office will be Kahn's owner and handler. They just finished two weeks of rigorous training.

“The court process is not really child friendly, it’s not witness friendly either. It’s an uncomfortable experience,” Commonwealth’s Attorney Eric Olsen told me earlier this month.

Kahn may sit with victims while they are interviewed about incidents. He can be petted or hugged or cuddled with. He may pick up on the victim’s needs and put his head in the victim’s lap, offering a calming presence. This focus can in turn help the interviewer and other staff receive a more accurate, complete story, as compared with a victim who is tense or stressed.

“It is such a boost to everyone, it’ll be part of the courthouse family,” Olsen said.

Juanita Maley, who works in the Victim-Witness Assistance Program, will be the dog’s owner. Her family’s last pet died recently, and her children wanted another dog. “I didn’t want to do the puppy stage again,” Maley said recently, before starting the training with Canine Companions for Independence in New York.

Off the clock and back at home, Kahn will be allowed to be a regular dog — playing fetch, chasing squirrels, lounging on the floor, whatever he may want to do. Maley and Kahn learned commands at the training that signal when it’s time for work and when it’s time for play. (I watched a DVD showing the difference between these attitudes, and it’s remarkable to see the difference after just one command. One of the people in the video explained that the courthouse dog may look sad or sedated at work, but he’s not. Being calm and relaxed is part of the job, and he’s still a happy pup despite that quiet attitude.)

“You will not even realize the dog is here,” Maley said about what the office will be like when Kahn is at work. For now, Kahn won’t work in the actual courtrooms like some dogs do, but Olsen left that open as a possibility for the future.

Courthouse and county staff will receive training from Washington State-based Courthouse Dogs LLC on Tuesday and Wednesday. I’ll meet Kahn next week as well, and share more about him and his new job in an upcoming story in the paper.