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Unlimited paid time off, coworkers who love you and a separation between work and home life? Sounds like a dream job, right? Duo Dog Derby certainly puts in the work as the facility dog of the Greene County Juvenile Office to earn it.
Derby has been working for the juvenile office for a little over a year, performing a variety of tasks serving families, kids and county government staff. Derby can be spotted traveling around the Greene County government campus, to play with kids in detention, sit in the witness stand in a courtroom and provide stress relief for families and staff in the juvenile justice system.
“He’s been a game-changer for sure,” Family Court Administrator and Chief Juvenile Officer Bill Prince said at a Sept. 5 Greene County Commission meeting.
Derby’s journey to Greene County
Getting a court dog for the Greene County Juvenile Office was a pre-pandemic idea from Associate Circuit Judge Andy Hosmer. After exploring what that would look like through conversations with the Child Advocacy Center — which also has a Duo dog — the Juvenile Office began the “rigorous” process of bringing Derby, a four-year-old black English Labrador, to Springfield.
Hosmer, who spends much of his time in a courtroom at the Greene County Juvenile Justice Center, said other judges in the 31st Circuit have been jealous of Derby, and that Derby has been a calming presence and a “real asset” in helping court feel less traumatic for children and families.
“I like him,” Hosmer said.
Duo Dogs is a nonprofit organization based in St. Louis that trains and connects facility, therapy and assistance dogs to people and organizations who might benefit from a dog’s services. In addition to providing courtroom assistance and comfort to people in the legal system, these Duo dogs can help with a variety of special needs and at-risk populations, as well as provide services to health care facilities and schools, assist veterans and individuals with physical disabilities and those who are deaf and hard of hearing.
Once the roughly 40-page application was completed, Greene County Detention Superintendent Danielle Tomasi and Family Treatment Court Project Coordinator Ashley Armstrong — who would become Derby’s “handlers” — spent a week in St. Louis with Duo trainers in order to connect with Derby and become familiar with his working motions and commands.
Derby was trained for three years in a prison in Illinois, similar to how service dogs are trained in the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield. While he was trained to do many of the same things service dogs can do, Derby is a facility dog. He can open cabinets, he can retrieve objects, he can push buttons to open automatic doors and Tomasi is in the process of training him to open elevator doors. In total, Prince estimated Derby had more than $40,000 worth of training.
Derby, whose services were effectively donated to the Greene County Juvenile Office, even though he is technically still owned by Duo, is required to be with either Tomasi or Armstrong at all times.
Tomasi and Armstrong underwent background checks and had their homes inspected to determine their suitability as Derby’s caretakers. In order for them to be recertified, they recently recorded each other on video running through various commands with Derby to show Duo that he still knew how to do certain tasks.
“In some ways, it’s probably as difficult as adopting a child to get these facility dogs,” Prince told the Springfield Daily Citizen.
Derby makes regular visits to the veterinarian, the same vet who cares for the Greene County Sheriff’s Office K9 officers. Derby is required to be groomed once a month, have his teeth and hair brushed daily, and his toenails trimmed regularly. Derby is on a strict diet, in which he can’t gain more than a couple of pounds while in Armstrong and Tomasi’s care.
“Everybody in the office was so excited to have treat containers on their desks and we had to send out forms that said, ‘Nobody give this dog treats,’” Tomasi said.
The county government pays for aspects of Derby’s care, such as food, vet visits, and grooming, although it has come in well under the juvenile officer’s $7,000 line item in the 2023 budget, which charges totaling just over $1,200 between Feb. 2 and July 5 of this year.
Once in uniform, Derby’s on the clock
While Derby gets to lie down at work more than the rest of us, he knows he’s on the clock as soon as he dons the blue vest that reads “Duo Facility Dog.” The vest has a pocket that holds his business cards. He’ll join either Tomasi or Armstrong on their daily commutes, and will often start his day greeting Juvenile Office staff before spending time with kids in detention or with families in court.
Tomasi said Derby has been very helpful with kids who have shown suicidal tendencies, in that taking care of the dog, and future planning with him — whether by being assigned brushing duties or playing with him — gives them something else to focus on.
“They just will kind of love the dog, and that we get them through a little bit every time,” Tomasi said.
Derby can also be of benefit by serving as a distraction, helping kids open up and talk about what they’re feeling simply while they pet the dog.
“Sometimes we have to just kind of let everybody take a step back and figure out how to move forward and Derby is a real good bridge for that,” Tomasi said.
In family treatment court, where kids and families might feel intimidated or unsure of what’s going to happen next, Derby can be found in the witness box, in the gallery or a side room, calming people, again, by just being petted.
“The value these little guys provide is just immeasurable,” Prince said. “The effect a dog will have on people just lowers the barometric pressure.”
Armstrong said the staff of the juvenile office, however, might benefit the most from having Derby around, due to the secondary trauma that they experience in their line of work. It’s not just the juvenile office staff that enjoys having a dog around, but other county offices and departments, as well. When walking between the Juvenile Detention Center, Juvenile Offices and other county buildings in downtown Springfield, Derby is happily met by government employees who don’t have the pleasure of working alongside him everyday.
“He’s kind of a local celebrity,” Armstrong said.
As a facility dog, Derby can work up to 40 hours a week, but he has “unlimited PTO,” and will often be relieved of his duties if it’s been a rough week. While Derby can draw a line between his work and home life, he doesn’t necessarily see his time spent in a vest as work.
“His whole thought process is everybody’s there to love on him,” Tomasi said.
It isn’t until around 5 p.m. everyday — when Derby has his vest removed — that he knows he is off work and begins to act like a “normal” dog.
Tomasi, who has three large dogs of her own, said Derby is often the most hyper of the pack, though he still waits for permission to jump on the couch.
Facility dogs could be of benefit to everyone
Derby will remain a fixture of the Juvenile Office for years to come, allowed by Duo to work until he’s 10-years-old. When he retires, Duo will be allowed to remain in the care of one of his handlers. At that point, the Juvenile Office will be able to request a successor.
Also by that point, their next facility dog might have canine coworkers. Prince said that he’s been approached by other county offices about what it would look like for them to get their own facility dog.
“I’m thinking like when people get their tax bills or have to have to come in and pay their personal property tax, it might be nice to have a dog sitting there,” Prince said half-jokingly at the Sept. 5 meeting.
While Prince sees the value dogs could bring to other departments, he cautioned the massive undertaking the dogs’ care can be, especially for the handlers.
“Yes, it’s really cool, and it’s neat to have him, but with that coolness comes a lot of responsibility,” Prince said, praising the “massive commitment” Tomasi and Armstrong made.
It’s been in the juvenile office, however, where Prince can attest to the benefits a courthouse facility dogs can bring.
“The thing that he’s made me realize is that the environment that we’re in every day, which is a detention center, a courtroom, a juvenile office — those are incredibly familiar spaces to us and we don’t think I think about it, because we know those doors are gonna open when we want to get out, we know that the judge is not a scary person and all of that kind of stuff,” Prince said.
“But for the folks that are coming to see us who are not regularly there, he has been just an incredible benefit. We’ve had litigants in court, and kids and parents say, ‘Man, without that dog in there, I would have just lost my stuff.’”
Derby will continue to provide that stress relief — by being pet, cared for and played with — to everyone who passes in and around the Greene County juvenile justice system.
While Derby is a professional in every sense of the word, he has one skill missing from his résumé: releasing a ball after he fetches it.