Westmoreland OKs addition of therapy dogs in courthouse
There will be a friendly face on the fourth floor of the Westmoreland County Courthouse.
It has whiskers, a wet nose and soft fuzzy ears.
The wagging tails and patient, friendly demeanor of therapy dogs will greet children who may be nervous about a family court hearing.
“The biggest stress and anxiety … is right prior to court,” said Shara Saveikis, director of the county children’s bureau. “It’s a very tense situation whenever you’re in court. You can actually feel the stress in the room.”
County commissioners approved agreements with 13 therapy dog handlers who will set up shop in family court on Mondays and Wednesdays on a rotating basis starting this week. One or two dogs — ranging from a small Yorkshire terrier to a large Shiloh shepherd — will spend about two hours in a waiting room there in the mornings and then the afternoons while children and families arrive for dependency hearings. That type of proceeding is held when a child is removed from a situation of abuse or neglect.
Those are typically the busiest days, said Mandy Zalich, director of CASA of Westmoreland, which pairs volunteer advocates with children going through the family court process. If requested, a dog can accompany a child into a courtroom for a hearing as long as there are no objections, Saveikis said.
The program, through Westmoreland County Obedience Training Club Thera-Paws, is volunteer-based, and many of the handlers live in the area. Linda Cerutti of Murrysville and her 8-year-old golden retriever, Sidney, work with a similar program at the Fayette County Courthouse that children seem to enjoy.
“For a minute, the real world is forgotten,” she said. “We’ll sit with them as long as they want to.”
Sidney works with people of all ages, from young readers to college students stressed over finals to nursing home residents. The soft white coat of Cosmo, an 8-year-old Shiloh shepherd, has soothed University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg students and senior citizens.
Cosmo’s handler Anita Ulishney of Unity Township is looking forward to working with young children. As for the stressed-out college students preparing for finals: “They just sat on the floor and kept petting and petting,” she said.
Therapy dogs won’t just help children at the courthouse. Officials anticipate the animals’ presence will calm and relax others in family court, including parents, caseworkers, hearing officers and court staff.
A grant Zalich received paid for matching shirts for all of the volunteers. There is no cost to the county, and anyone who doesn’t want to interact with the dogs can wait in a separate area.
Judge Michele Bononi knows the stress relief her own dogs — the “Bononi brothers” — provide after a tough day. The dogs gifted two boxes of treats for the therapy animals.
“I watch kids come into my courtroom and the anxiety they have,” she said. “This will be wonderful if they can just sit and pet. I can’t be more pleased with this.”
Renatta Signorini is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Renatta at 724-837-5374, email@example.com or via Twitter @byrenatta.