A support dog named Pepper joined Washington, D.C., Superior Court staff Wednesday. Her job? To soothe kids who are victims of sexual exploitation and trafficking during hearings.
Pepper is part of the Here Opportunities Prepare you for Excellence (HOPE) program, which is tailored to the needs of kids in the system who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation.
During her first day on the job, Pepper and her handler, Abby Stavitsky, worked with youth in six cases who have experienced trauma. Stavitsky said their primary goal is to help the kids relax.
“Just to keep them calm and happy and make coming to court a more positive experience,” Stavitsky said.
Pepper is definitely a soothing presence, Stavitsky and Magistrate Judge Mary Grace Rook agreed.
“She likes being petted; she likes being loved,” Stavitsky said. “She has a tendency to fall asleep or lay on your feet, which is a very calming thing for someone. It’s almost like having a weighted blanket.”
The kids Pepper comforted Wednesday wore huge smiles during what could have otherwise been a frightening and intimidating experience.
Rook explained that service animals like Pepper help make hearings a more productive experience for both the kids and the court.
“If they come in here angry and they’re hostile, the dog is there to soothe them,” Rook said. “It’s really hard to stay mad when you’re petting a dog.”
For more information about courthouse service dogs, visit Courthouse Dogs Foundation.