Service dog comforts children who have been abused

Meyer is a dog with a day job.

After hours, he’s a regular 2-year-old labrador and golden retriever mix who likes to go on walks, romp without his leash and scarf dog food. But when he’s in the office, he’s all business.

Meyer is the newest worker at the Prince William County Department of Social Services, where he comforts children who have been abused.

At work, Meyer will stay perfectly still, even if a toddler pulls his tail or pokes his face. His incredibly docile demeanor makes him an ideal source of solace for children in trying times, the county’s social workers say.

Children will have the option of having Meyer rest his head on their laps or lie at their feet while they are interviewed by detectives and social workers about abuse they have experienced. Meyer might also accompany them to the hospital if they require a medical examination or sit in on supervised visits with their parents to lighten the mood.


Madeline Henry, 3, volunteered to help Meyer practice his job as a service dog. Henry's grandmother formerly worked in the county's Department of Social Services. (Julie Zauzmer/The Washington Post)

“Instead of them just talking to a grown-up about something that’s horribly embarrassing, they’ll have their ally here,” said Sarah Weatherford, a social worker who is Meyer’s handler. “Instead of having to worry about making eye contact with me, they can talk to him.”

Meyer even helped a parent deal with an emotional interview at the Social Services office last week. “She just started sobbing and got on her knees,” said Weatherford, who decided to bring Meyer into the room to try to comfort the distraught mother. “She started petting him, and she started crying, and he leaned forward and let her cry into him.”

Meyer goes home with Weatherford each night, where he gets to act like a normal dog. Once Weatherford puts his vest on him, he knows he is working.

In his first two weeks on the job, he has been a hit with the children he helps, Weatherford said.

“An 8-year-old wanted to interact with him. The entire time we spoke, he visited and she petted his head,” she said. “She was so comfortable. She answered every question I asked. I think it increased her comfort level.”

Weatherford said that Meyer will participate in at least two interviews a day.

Two other facilities in Virginia, one in Stafford County and one in Norfolk, use dogs for a similar purpose, Weatherford said. She plans to give a presentation about Meyer at an upcoming statewide conference. Already, social workers across the state are telling her that they want dogs in their offices, too.

Meyer received his extensive training from an organization called Canine Companions for Independence, which prepares dogs to help people with many types of disabilities. He was specially bred to be gentle and obedient, and raised for a year and a half by a carefully selected family.

Then, for six months, he lived in a training facility with other dogs being raised by the nonprofit group. He received advanced training at school for dogs — he even took exams and had a graduation ceremony at the end.

The cost of breeding and training Meyer was more than $45,000, according to the organization. Canine Companions for Independence provided the dog for free to the Department of Social Services, and Woodbridge Animal Hospital has agreed to give Meyer free medical care, such as vaccinations and checkups. The only cost to the county is Meyer’s bed in the Social Services office and his food.

Weatherford said that Meyer was chosen to work in social services, while other dogs that were trained with him went to adults and children with disabilities, because Meyer loves children and is so calm around them.

“Once I saw this little boy plucking his hair out,” Weatherford said. “I started to say, ‘Oh, let’s not do that.’ But Meyer just lay there. And I’m like, ‘Oh, we got the right dog.’ ”

Julie Zauzmer is a local news reporter.
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