Courthouse canines: Meet the cuddly critters who will soothe Franklin County crime victims

See how dogs will soothe Franklin County victims

Kelly Casto of the local Go Team Therapy Dog group tells how the volunteers will start working with crime victims at the Franklin County Prosecutors office in Pasco.
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Kelly Casto of the local Go Team Therapy Dog group tells how the volunteers will start working with crime victims at the Franklin County Prosecutors office in Pasco.

Tina Carmona works with crime victims every day and sees the pain, stress and anxiety they go through.

For years, the victim witness coordinator at the Franklin County Prosecutor’s Office wanted to incorporate dogs in their program, but it wasn’t in the budget.

Then, after training her own blue Doberman to become a therapy dog, Carmona approached her boss about partnering with Go Team Therapy Dogs of the Tri-Cities.

The idea is that the dogs will provide affection and comfort to both child and adult victims as they go through critical stages in the pretrial and trial process, and promote healing.

That includes meet-and-greets with prosecutors, courtroom tours and interviews when victims often become nervous and may even clam up as they’re forced to relive traumatic circumstances, said Carmona.

The dogs are not certified to be in the courtroom during a trial, but can be outside waiting for them after the victims testifying.

“Then they can leave it all with the dog,” said Carmona. “So when (the victim) goes home, they’re not left with that tight knot in their stomach. They can spend some time with the dog, and then leave a little more relaxed.”

16 local dogs

Prosecutor Shawn Sant saw the benefit in Carmona’s proposal, and this week took it before the county commission.

The commissioners unanimously approved using Go Team Tri-Cities in the Pasco courthouse.

There is no cost to the county since Go Team is part of a nonprofit international organization. Currently, there are 16 local dogs, and their handlers are all volunteers.

Go Team Therapy, Crisis and Airport Dogs started during the Waldo Canyon forest fire in Colorado Springs in 2012. Two therapy dogs and their handlers visited displaced residents and first responders, and the reaction was overwhelmingly positive.

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The colors of the GO TEAM therapy dog patch each have meaning. Red honors first responders, black honors fallen military members,blue honors law enforcement and white remembers those special people who are no longer with us. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

The organization now is nationwide, as well as in South Korea.

Therapy dogs must have a Canine Good Citizen certificate from the American Kennel Club. Then the dog and handler must get a recommendation, like from an obedience school, to participate in a two-day, intense testing.

Both the dog and the handler must pass to become part of the program, along with having their own insurance policies.

Intensive training

The training includes not reacting to dropped food, being around large crowds, using an escalator and staying calm when kids rush at them and pull their tails.

“Four paws on the floor at all times,” is one of their mottos.

Yet, people are encouraged to pet the dogs, that come with their own trading cards with personal stats.

Carmona, who has been with the prosecutor’s office for about 20 years, said she and her dog Ozzy became certified last year after taking a class at Sit Means Sit in Kennewick.

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Franklin Prosecutor Shawn Sant petted a Goldendoodle named Chewie at the Franklin County Courthouse in Pasco on Thursday. Aubrey Eppich of Basin City held onto Chewie while Julie Bafus of Kennewick watched over her pit bull mix named Ally. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

Other dogs in the Tri-Cities include a Goldendoodle, a Chihuahua mix, a pit bull, a Rottweiler, a herding dog called a McNab, a purebred Labrador, a Lab-pit mix, a German Shorthaired Pointer and two Boxers.

The dogs visit senior living communities and rehabilitation centers, the children’s reading program at the Richland Public Library, and even inside security at the Tri-Cities Airport to help comfort stressed travelers.

Bringing smiles and joy

“I’ve had victims see me in the grocery store and I just see on their face, it just brings them back (to the bad memories),” she said. “So I want them to be able to have a different experience when they’re here. I don’t want them to have just a negative experience from coming to the courthouse.”

Carmona said you can see the joy and smiles the dogs bring.

“You can’t get that from a human, that unconditional love. There is no judgment there, no opinions, no ‘this is what you should do,’” she said. “There is none of that from a dog. It is unconditional, unbiased love.”

They hope to get a brochure in the prosecutor’s office so victims can choose among different available dogs. But also, since Carmona is in the program, she knows the personalities of the dogs and can suggest good matches.

Therapy dogs are by request only, since some people may have allergies or be afraid of dogs.

Some of the handlers are retired or business owners, so they will be available as needed. They all have signed confidentiality agreements since the handlers must be with their dogs at all time, which means they may be present when victims are sharing private information with investigators.

Good distraction

Kelly Casto said she knew early on that her rescue dog Jake had the temperament to be a therapy dog and is excited to be able to help crime victims.

“You watch people’s countenance just completely change when they see the dog, their faces light up,” she said. “I think that relationship will be really key to hopefully getting that kid to open up and maybe make the best of what is probably a terrible, terrible situation.”

To schedule a visit or for more information on becoming a dog/handler team, email

Kristin M. Kraemer covers the judicial system and crime issues for the Tri-City Herald. She has been a journalist for more than 20 years in Washington and California.