Meet Lavender, a three-year-old golden retriever puppy with a very important job.
Lavender is employed by the San Joaquin County Family Justice Center in Stockton. Officially, she is a greeter. But the therapy dog does more than shake hands with people who enter the center; she’s also a source of comfort for many while they work to better their lives, sometimes testifying in court against abusers or moving through enrichment programs supported by the FJC.
“She has a very sweet gentle disposition,” says Suzanne Schultz, program manager for the FJC, staff member at the local district attorney’s office, and Lavender’s handler. “She will just come and be present by [victims] at a time when people are really going through stuff.”
The FJC sees a lot of victims of sexual or physical abuse including children or families with kids. While even adults seem to benefit from Lavender’s presence, it is the children who truly light up when Lavender comes into a room. “I just see what a difference she makes,” Suzanne says.
Suzanne recalls a specific situation where a young girl came in. She had to testify against a man who sexually abused her, which meant revisiting the trying situation. She didn’t want to relive her trauma, but when she saw Lavender, her face lit up. The girl had to travel across state lines just to be there for the trial, and Lavender became a silver lining of an otherwise difficult trip. “Her whole face changed [when she saw Lavender]. For just a few minutes she was happy,” Suzanne recalls.
Lavender was able to accompany the young girl to the witness room, where witnesses sit before testifying in a court room. Here, Lavender has been trained to sense anxiety, and she will either lay at a person’s feet or rest her chin on their leg while they wait. The entire time she is open for pets. Lavender isn’t yet ready to accompany victims into the courtroom—although that is a goal Suzanne is working toward with her—so the little girl was invited back to the FJC after her trial to see Lavender again. It was clear the little girl had been crying, but when she saw Lavender, she immediately gave her a hug.
This is a pretty typical scenario for Lavender. When people walk into the center, she is trained to look for a cue from a worker. When given the go ahead, she approaches them (this is to avoid contact with people who are not comfortable with dogs). At that time, she can shake hands, give hugs and high fives, or even deliver a fist bump. The people who come into the center may be there immediately following a trauma or sometimes they are working toward betterment after enduring a rough trial, but regardless of where they are, every person is welcome to hold and pet Lavender as they get help.
Before coming to the justice center, Lavender was raised in a prison by a couple of inmates. It’s part of a program called POOCH, a restorative justice program that works with inmates sentenced to life in prison in both Southern California and Ione. There, inmates with zero infractions over a specific period of time can choose to forgo a roommate (a big incentive for many) and have a dog as their cellmate instead. As part of the program, the inmates attend trainings and become the dogs’ first handlers—dogs that will go on to become either personal therapy dogs or facility therapy dogs. Lavender was trained and lived the first two years of her life in Ione.
A second inmate is responsible for quality assurance, checking in to make sure the main handler is doing the work. If they are successful and stay out of trouble for the duration of the program, they can have another dog when they graduate. Lavender’s handler was the first life she changed. Suzanne was told the man, a convicted murderer, said Lavender was the first being he had ever learned to love more than himself. Lavender taught the felon compassion.
Lavender has been on the job since June 10, 2019. When she’s working, she wears a vest and she knows she’s on the job, but when Lavender gets home—she lives with her handler Suzanne—she turns into a pet. “I notice the difference between a working dog and a pet,” Suzanne says. When that vests comes off, Suzanne adds, “you can clearly see that her disposition is completely different.”
San Joaquin County Family Justice Center
222 E. Weber Ave., Stockton,