Bringing in help: Hamilton’s Emma’s House to receive a trained therapy dog

Every year, nearly 120 youngsters find themselves in a small white house in Hamilton talking about things that no one should ever have to talk about.

The children’s advocacy center is the place where abused and neglected children are interviewed and medical evidence is gathered by professionals trained to work with youth.

“It’s never an easy process,” said Emma’s House director Val Widmer.

Sometime in the next year or so, the center will gain a new four-legged member of the staff that Widmer and others believe could make a huge difference in those most difficult times.

Widmer learned last month – on her birthday – that Emma’s House has been selected to receive a trained therapy dog from the national Canine Companions for Independence organization.

It’s something Widmer has hoped for since 2008, when she first learned about an organization that used dogs to help children and adults remain calm in a courtroom setting.

Two years ago, Widmer met retired Phoenix detective Joy Lucero and her dog, Calhoun.

Lucero spent her last 13 years with the force working on the children’s crime unit. She often served as the lead during forensic interviews with young victims.

After seeing other law enforcement use dogs to help victims get through difficult times, Lucero worked with Canine Companions for Independence to obtain Calhoun.

“I thought a dog could help make a child feel better during the difficult interview process,” she said.

She didn’t have to wait long to find out.

She graduated the training class with Calhoun in November. In December, she was assigned to interview an 8-year-old boy who had seen his father shot and kill his mother.

“I thought immediately this was exactly the kind of case where Calhoun could make an impact,” Lucero said. “The boy was able to pet Calhoun through the interview and it helped him get through the tough spots.”

After the interview, Calhoun went to a playroom at the police station with the boy while he waited for state officials and relatives to arrive.

“All through that time, he was playing and visiting with the dog,” she said. “It helped him occupy his mind. Calhoun made a huge difference that day.”

In another case, Lucero interviewed a 14-year-old boy who had been picked up in Massachusetts and driven to Arizona by an online sexual predator.

“It was a hard interview,” Lucero said. “There were so many graphic acts. During the interview, Calhoun was able to provide the boy with the kind of comfort that I can’t as an interviewer. You could tell he wanted to be hugged and that, unfortunately, is not my role as much as I wanted it to be.

“The boy lay on the ground with Calhoun and hugged him while he was finishing the interview,” she said. “I have no doubt that the only reason he was able to finish the interview was because Calhoun was there.”

Calhoun is a Labrador-golden retriever mix.

Lucero and Calhoun now live in Philipsburg. They recently spent some time at Emma’s House. After hearing about the work that’s accomplished there, Lucero hoped the center would get its own dog.

“I’m so happy they are getting one,” she said.

The application process to get a dog is extensive.

Widmer said the application required them to explain how the dog would be used and cared for once it arrives in Hamilton.

In May, the Montana Army National Guard, 230th Vertical Engineers helped meet a big need by building a new white picket fence around the advocacy center’s lawn.

“Having a fenced yard was an important component of having a dog here,” Widmer said.

When the dog isn’t at Emma’s House or other locations where its calming skills can be used, it will live with the Widmer family. In August, the Widmers traveled to Santa Rosa, Calif., for a final face-to-face interview process with members of the Canine Companions for Independence organization.

“It was such an amazing experience,” Widmer said. “We toured the campus and the dogs and their trainers. It’s an incredible operation.”

Widmer was the only applicant there who belonged to an organization. The other applicants were people with a variety of disabilities who will use the dogs help them maintain as independent a lifestyle as possible.

Widmer saw dogs that were trained to open doors, turn off lights and even press a button that called for help when its owner was having a seizure.

“It really brought it home on just how important of a role these dogs can play in a person’s life,” she said.

Widmer received Emma House’s acceptance letter on Sept. 2 – her birthday.

“That was amazing,” she said.

Canine Companions for Independence will donate about $60,000 in training to the center.

“That’s a huge gift,” Widmer said.

The wait for a dog can take up to year, although Widmer is hoping it won’t be quite that long.

“We’ve been told the wait for an organization is sometimes shorter,” she said. “Our dogs will have about 100 commands. A skilled companion dog will have right at 150 commands.”

Once the selection is made, Widmer will spend two weeks in California working intensively with the Emma’s House dog.

The wait is going to be hard.

“I just know this is going to make a difference for many of the kids we see,” she said. “The forensic interview is really stressful for a lot of these kids. They have to talk about the things that happened to them.”

“Having a dog there for them to pet and hug will be a big help,” she said. “I’m sure of that.”

Hannah Honey