Geoff Liesik, Deseret News
VERNAL — To the casual eye, it looks like an ordinary house.
Children's artwork hangs on the wall. Colorful toys wait to be played with. There's even a dog curled up on the floor.
But Wink, a 2-year-old black Lab/golden retriever mix, isn't your typical canine. And the place where she spends most of her days isn't your typical house.
"We do everything we can to make kids more comfortable," said Tonya Murray, who is the director of the Uintah/Daggett Children's Justice Center and also serves as Wink's handler.
The state's 15 children's justice centers provide a home-like environment where police and social services investigators can interview children in cases of suspected abuse or neglect. The center in Vernal is the first in Utah to add a full-time service dog, Murray said.
"Wink is our newest child-abuse response team member," she said. "She's been with us since the middle of November, and she's helped us with about 10 kids so far."
Uintah County sheriff's detective Stephanie Cox began interviewing children at the center about four years ago. Since Wink's arrival, she has used the dog in several cases and has noticed a difference.
"I was interviewing probably about a 12- or 13-year-old girl, and she petted the dog the whole time and seemed really calm," Cox said. "It took her mind off the questions I was asking her and probably made it a little bit easier for her."
The children Cox works with aren't the only ones who benefit from Wink's presence at the Children's Justice Center, she said.
"When the dog is in the waiting room with the (child's) family, the family is able to pet the dog, and I think it reassures them a little bit," the detective said.
Wink was donated to the center by California-based Canine Companions for Independence. She was chosen for her calm demeanor, according to Murray, who noted that Wink usually curls up at a child's feet or lays her head in their lap, depending on the need she senses.
The dog's behavior impressed 8th District Juvenile Court Judge Larry Steele so much when he first met her that he recently allowed Wink to accompany a child into his courtroom for a hearing.
"I am perfectly OK with that dog being in the courtroom," Steele said. "The child was focused on the dog, on petting it, and it helped calm her down."
Before going to court, the child had been introduced to Wink at the Children's Justice Center, which maintains dog-free areas where it can serve children who have allergies. The center's staff also doesn't bring Wink into a room until they've confirmed that a child doesn't have a fear of dogs, Murray said.
"She's been really great with all the different kids," she said.
In addition to donating the dog, Canine Companions for Independence also covers the center's liability insurance for using Wink and provides training for Murray so she can keep the dog's skills sharp and identify indicators of stress.
"She's going to be with us for eight to 10 years, so we want to make sure we keep her happy," Murray said.
All other costs associated with adding Wink to the Children's Justice Center team have been covered by private funds.
"She's definitely a valued member of our community," Murray said. "I have a lot of people out here who help us make it happen by giving us donations."
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