SUMMIT COUNTY, Ohio (WJW) — A blessing, a comfort, a sweet soul.
Those are all words used to describe a dog named Avery, who has captured the hearts of those in the Summit County Prosecutor’s Office, along with hundreds of victims of crime, most of whom are children.
Avery is a facility dog in the office and works with handler Melanie Hart to provide emotional support to people who are often severely traumatized and need help to get through court proceedings, interviews and more.
Avery, who just celebrated his 10th birthday, has been working with the Summit County Prosecutor’s Office since 2013. During that time, he’s helped with 202 cases, working with 253 victims.
“Of those, 191 were children he sat with, that he comforted and aided, gave him that comfort and gave them the help they needed to speak out about the trauma they suffered,” said Tania Nemer, community outreach prosecutor.
He’s actually the first facility dog to work in a prosecutor’s office in the state of Ohio. Prosecutor Sherrie Bevan Walsh learned about the concept at a conference and didn’t wait long to look into adding a dog to their team.
It took about a year for Avery to go through training. Hart said he learned 40 commands and can complete tasks like pulling open a refrigerator door, picking up keys and handing someone a Kleenex box.
“Because he was so calm, they chose him to come with us because there are times when he has to sit in court for three hours,” said Hart, who is also administrative assistant to Walsh.
Hart didn’t have to think hard about being Avery’s handler.
“It means she’s working all the time,” said Nemer. “He comes home with her. Mel is his mom. Mel is just very devoted to the prosecutor’s office and what we do, and she knew right away…how effective Avery could be, and she took on that responsibility.”
Every day is a little different, Hart said. Sometimes they head to court hearings or trials, other times drug court, veteran’s court and even schools and local homeless and women’s shelters.
“He can sit for three hours at a time, the jury wouldn’t even know he’s there,” said Nemer. “He sits at the foot of the chair, and the victim holds the leash or is petting him while they are testifying.”
Most of those he’s worked with are children who have witnessed crimes like murders.
“That’s a lot to ask of a child,” said Nemer. “Their testimony…their explanation and what they witness is so crucial to what we do and how we keep our community safe. Avery is that middle man who kind of comes in and helps that happen. Otherwise, I don’t expect them to trust a bunch of strangers in suits in a room.”
Hart brought up an experience with one little girl who didn’t want to share her story with anyone.
“But she said she would tell Avery,” Hart said. “So we did a Facetime, and everyone left the room and she told Avery what happened to her, and they got the whole story. It really is something to see.”
Avery doesn’t just help victims of crime. He’s also a bright spot for the employees in the office, who are often stressed and dealing with complicated cases.
“He’s been just such a blessing to our office,” said Nemer.