Jake: Facility dog is no ordinary pet

He may seem like just a lazy dog, but lazy dogs don’t make the cut at Support Dogs, Inc. Jake would rather be running around the yard, playing with his bones and fetching a ball, but instead, when his vest is on, Jake is working. He is a calming presence to children of all ages during court proceedings and forensic investigations. 

Jake, a 2-year-old black English Labrador, lives with Robin Connell, executive director at the Child Safety Center of White County in Searcy, but he is no ordinary pet. Jake is a facility dog, trained to comfort children by laying and sitting with them, either in their lap or at their feet. 

Child Safety Center Executive Director Robin Connell (left) and forensic interviewer Felicia Patten with Jake, who provides comfort for children.

“It takes a lot of skill to lay still with your head in a child’s lap for an hour plus and let that child continually stroke your ear constantly and do that with four children back to back,” Connell said. “That is skill, but it looks like nothing.”

The Child Safety Center of White County is one piece of the multi-disciplinary response to child abuse in White County, including other agencies such as local law enforcement and the state Department of Human Services. The Child Safety Center was established to prevent sexually abused children from continuing to endure abuse because of the system’s response to their cases. The Child Safety Center of White County in Searcy opened in April 2008 as the 10th advocacy center in Arkansas with the help of former Clinical Director Kathy Helpenstill and her social work students from Harding University.

“We are making a huge difference in the community with the way that the DHS treats their cases. They now can take their cases to the advocacy center where they can get support, they can get medical exams and they can get mental health [assistance],” Helpenstill said. “We are creating miracles, and that is not dramatic.”  

Before arriving at the Child Safety Center of White County in Searcy, Jake was bred, born and trained at Support Dogs, Inc., a school for service dogs of all kinds, in St. Louis. Jake was bred to be a show dog in the lineage of a grand champion at the Westminster dog show in order to meet the requirements for coat, muscles and joints to aid as a service dog.

Over the course of the 18 months he spent at Support Dog, he spent time in the prison system being trained by first-time, nonviolent offenders to do “normal puppy things” like walking on a leash. He was then brought back into the school where he began the six- to eight-month intensive training program.

In July 2016, the Child Safety Center moved into a new location. Connell and Felicia Patten, the center’s forensic interviewer, Jake’s secondary handler and his work partner, decided it was time to apply to receive a facility dog. After being on the waiting list for nine months, they traveled to St. Louis in October 2017 to be introduced to and trained with their new facility dog.

They showed up to the facility along with three other advocacy centers. The three dogs were assigned by the trainer after seeing their interactions with the handlers. As soon as they walked in the room, Connell and Patten were both instantly drawn to Jake and knew he was theirs.   

“It was intense,” Connell said. “It was hard. No one will ever fully understand how hard that was except for she and I. That dog was smarter than us when we got there. He knew what to do. We then had to be trained how to speak his language. [We had] one week to learn everything about this dog.”

Jake is not a therapy dog or an emotional support dog; he is a facility court dog who has the skills of any service dog. At Support Dogs, all dogs are trained in every area, and then placed in the area that best suits their personality traits. From going to the bathroom on command to opening doors and moving his feet so they are not in the way of a wheelchair, Jake completely relies on their commands to carry out normal, daily functions, which was more intimidating than they had anticipated. 

“We were also overwhelmed with the magnitude of work he was going to do,” Connell said. “We felt emotionally overwhelmed and very lucky that we were going to be able to bring him back. Every day our bond with him grew more.”

The first six weeks Jake spent with them was solely an acclimation period to the new places, people and environment. In November, after mock interviews simulating high stress and distracting situations, he began accompanying Patten in forensic interviews, which are strictly monitored and watched by investigators through cameras. Everything Patten does and says must be defensible in court, including the use of Jake.

“Every kid that comes here is different, so they have a number of different responses in that room because we are talking about very hard things in detail, and I am asking a child who does not know me at all to trust me with intimate details of horrible things that have happened to them,” Patten said. “Adding Jake to that equation has added another layer of comfort and empathy that I am really not able to give because my job is to be neutral in that room. I have to be very conscious of my facial expressions and my responses to children when they get upset. For me, Jake is able to be a comfort in a way that I can’t comfort, and it is legally defensible.”

Not only is it legally defensible to use him as a comforting presence, but Jake’s presence has also made a difference in the powerful work they are doing.

“There have definitely been instances where children would not have talked as long or in as much detail if they didn’t feel as comfortable,” Connell said. “We are still doing what we were doing before. We are gathering information for an investigation, and the kids are still coming in here and doing the same things they were doing without Jake, but I think before we were not able to be comforting to them in that situation. [Patten] has to stay so neutral, so it is nice to be able to see him do what she can’t.”

One way they are trying to quantifiably measure Jake’s effect on the children is by having them write notes to him after their interviews and therapy sessions. In these notes the children tell him thank you for sitting with them and being a great dog. In longer interviews, Patten often gives the children a break from the intensity of the interview, but will leave Jake with them. When they are left alone with Jake in the middle of the interview or during therapy sessions, the children talk to him, just having normal conversations. It was powerful for them to know the children are bonding with him. 

When Jake turns 10, he will retire from being a facility court dog, taking a break from the hard work he does to just be a dog, during which time he will be able to stay with Connell. Until then, Jake will continue making an impact in the lives of the children in White County who find themselves facing the challenges that bring them to the Child Safety Center. 


Megan Ledbetter