Community Action Council of Lewis, Mason & Thurston Counties Celebrates the Retirement of Courthouse Service Dog Astro

Monarch’s Rise and Shine Breakfast fundraiser is April 17, 2024


Imagine having to speak with healthcare providers or investigators about the details of an assault. For children, the aftermath of an assault can be particularly daunting and painful. Monarch Children’s Justice and Advocacy Center (MCJAC) and its partners strive to reduce the trauma experienced by children after disclosing abuse. For the past 10.5-years, Astro, a courthouse facility service dog holding the official title of “Director of Canine Services,” has been there to support children throughout the entire process. Astro accompanies them during interviews, medical appointments, advocacy, mental health services, and courthouse appearances. The Community Action Council of Lewis, Mason & Thurston Counties (CACLMT) has provided support to Astro and his handlers, bringing comfort and hope to children, their caregivers/families, collaborative partners, and staff. As Astro’s retirement approaches, his work is celebrated with gratitude and a sense of sadness.

yellow lab, Astro, wearing a blue cape and eye mask
Astro, courthouse facility service dog, is a superhero to the many families, children and staff he has worked with the past 10.5 years. Photo courtesy: Community Action Council of Lewis, Mason & Thurston Counties

Becoming a Courthouse Dog in Olympia

Over a decade ago, Dr. Deborah Hall, the former medical director of the Providence St. Peter Hospital Sexual Assault Clinic and Child Maltreatment Center (now co-located with MCJAC), attended an Annual International Conference on Child and Family Maltreatment. During the conference, she learned about the benefits of having a facility dog at child advocacy centers. Dr. Hall was determined to obtain a facility dog for their program and reached out to the Courthouse Dogs Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for the use of facility dogs in the justice system and supports organizations that train and place these dogs.

The small Providence clinic lacked the capacity to apply for a facility dog placement, so they approached MCJAC. Tambra Donohue, PhD, the director of MCJAC, collaborated with the Courthouse Dogs Foundation to prepare an application for a Courthouse Facility Dog in Thurston County. In partnership with Providence, CACLMT underwent rigorous evaluation from Assistance Dogs of Hawaii garnering support from professionals involved in child abuse and neglect cases, including advocates, medical personnel, child protective services, law enforcement, special victims prosecuting attorneys, child forensic interviewers, and therapists as well as handler training for Tambra Donohue in Hawaii. Tambra explains that after observing the calm and highly trained nature of these dogs and their ability to assist children, the team unanimously supported the idea.

Astro with Lisa Wahl, who is one of his handlers at his job with Monarch Children’s Justice and Advocacy Center in Thurston County. Photo courtesy: Community Action Council of Lewis, Mason & Thurston Counties

Lisa Wahl, ARNP, FNP, SANE-A, SANE-P from the Providence Abuse Intervention Center (and one of Astro’s co-handlers) explains, “Once the initial screening was completed, Tambra flew to Maui for an intensive 40-hour week of learning and team training with Astro to demonstrate her suitability. At the end of that week, she successfully passed written and practical tests, allowing her to bring Astro to his job placement at Monarch.” Assistance Dogs of Hawaii also flew to Olympia to train Astro’s co-handlers, including Lisa Wahl, Sue Villa, Roni Jensen, Michelle Miller, and Erin Ward. Lisa adds, “Additionally, our county prosecutors had to establish within the legal system that Astro was allowed by law to accompany a child into the witness box at trial, among other benchmarks.” This approach was designed to minimize additional trauma by providing services to abused children as comprehensively in one place as possible and reducing the need for repeated interviews and examinations.

Monarch received approval from Assistance Dogs of Hawaii, which oversees Astro, trains co-handlers, and has worked closely with Astro and Tambra to ensure his ongoing enjoyment of work with the children he loves. When Astro officially retires, he will remain with Tambra to live out the rest of his golden years.

Astro served as a trailblazing Director of Canine Services, working with multiple co-handlers. This meant he could be present for children from the initial disclosure of abuse, through medical examinations, forensic interviews, ongoing therapy, support during prosecution, and case closure. Lisa adds, “We were told he was the first to do this. We were also told that having a dog during the medical portion had been a barrier for others, yet here we were!”

Astro in his working vest. Photo courtesy: Tambra Donohue

As Astro celebrates 11-years as a courthouse service dog during Child Abuse Prevention Month, Lisa shares, “Children feel more relaxed at a Child Advocacy Center when they are greeted by a gentle and friendly facility dog. Sometimes Astro’s presence can make the difference between a child being able to describe what happened or shutting down. Research shows that these dogs decrease stress, increase well-being, and promote calm. Children can quickly learn to give Astro cues to perform tasks, which makes them feel more confident, empowered, and in control.”

Astro has helped an estimated 3,000 children, family members, staff, and community partners during his career with the Monarch Children’s Justice and Advocacy Center. Lisa recalls an emotional moment when a child buried their face in Astro’s fur after a particularly difficult disclosure of abuse, finding solace in his quiet and calm strength. Children played games like “Find It” with Astro, hiding treats for him to find. Reluctant children would initially hang back, but upon seeing Astro, they would not want to leave.

Astro is leaving big paws to fill for new facility dogs, Coco and Daze. Photo courtesy: Tambra Donohue

Child Abuse Prevention Month is the perfect time to celebrate Astro’s achievements. Heather Leidner from the CACLMT emphasizes that everyone can participate in child abuse prevention by paying attention to children and reporting any concerning or unusual situations, which can lead to early intervention and the prevention of abuse. Heather explains that since 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic, Monarch has witnessed an increase in abuse cases and the complexity of the situations, which means service dog support is needed now more than ever for families dealing with cases of abuse. The Monarch Children’s Justice and Advocacy Center, along with their partners including Providence Swedish, extend an invitation to Astro’s formal “retiring of the vest” ceremony, which will take place at the 6th Annual Rise and Shine Breakfast benefiting the Monarch Children’s Justice and Advocacy Center.

The Rise and Shine Breakfast, hosted by MCJAC, will be held on Wednesday, April 17, 2024, at Saint Martin’s University at 7:30 a.m. The event will feature keynote speaker Jenna Quinn, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse who played a pivotal role in passing Jenna’s Law in Texas and is working to make it nationwide.

Astro’s retirement does not mean there will be no more dogs at Monarch or Providence. Coco, Astro’s successor, is ready to take on the role of Director of Canine Services with assistance from Daze, a Canine Companions-trained courthouse facility/therapy dog.  Now is the time to step up and support children, register to attend the breakfast and learn more about Monarch Children’s Justice & Advocacy Center’s at their website.


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