Dog in chair

Meet Coalbie, Greene juvenile court’s new therapy dog

Observer-Reporter – One of the newest members of the Greene County Juvenile Court staff is a furry, four-legged assistant that happily greets every person walking into the historic courtroom.

Coalbie, an affable, affectionate, 17-month-old beagle mix who was adopted from the Greene County Humane Society, is a therapy dog. She was granted permission by President Judge Louis Dayich to start work on Dec. 1, and since then has provided comfort and support to children during court proceedings.

Coalbie’s handler is Aaron Houser, executive director of Growing Up Greene, a Greene County nonprofit children’s advocacy organization that launched a pilot Pup Program that aims to curb childhood trauma.

“She has been a fixture in juvenile court since December, and we are already seeing the impact she is having on the kids, and I find it to be amazing to watch,” said Houser. “There have been situations where having Coalbie by their side has given children the confidence to speak up in court. We have had instances of children becoming emotional during a court hearing and Coalbie immediately registers that they’re stressed or nervous and gives me the signal that she wants to go visit them.”

Coalbie then quietly walks over to gently place her head on a knee or lean into a body. In return, she gets hugs and pats from some of the youngest and most fragile victims in the judicial process.

Coalbie, who Houser adopted, is the first dog in Greene County to attend Children and Youth Services court cases.

“We are now seeing the first children she interacted with return to the courtroom for review hearings. The fear of that old building isn’t there anymore, and ‘Where is Coalbie?’ is the first question they ask when they come off the elevator,” Houser said.

Houser pitched the idea for a therapy dog to join the juvenile court’s staff shortly after he took the helm at Growing Up Greene.

Years earlier, he had encountered Penny, a canine court advocate for Pittsburgh’s Crisis Center North who comforts domestic violence victims, when he worked for a nonprofit domestic violence agency.

“Dogs make people feel better just by their presence,” said Houser.

But what sold Houser was the day Penny comforted him in the courtroom when he was having a rough time.

“Not only did I witness Penny working with domestic violence victims, but there was a rough day for me where she picked me out of the courtroom and shielded me from the rest of the room. Nobody knew it was a bad day for me, but she did,” he recalled. “She was able to read me and know that I needed her that day. I became a believer in providing therapy dogs in the right circumstances.”

Coalbie, too, has that sensitivity and intuitiveness to read people and situations, Houser said.

In 2022, Growing Up Greene established an advisory committee with a grant from the Staunton Farm Foundation.

When the program got the green light, Growing Up Greene enlisted Lyn Trapuzzano of Off Leash K9 Training in Washington to search for and train a shelter dog.

Houser said the decision to adopt a shelter dog was easy.

“She was a foster kid, too, and she connects with children immediately,” said Houser.

Houser and Growing Up Greene Board Vice President Keshia Weaver said they knew by the end of their meeting with Coalbie at the humane society that the puppy – the first dog they visited – was the perfect fit.

boy cuddles dog

Coalbie spends time playing with 3-year-old Drew Weaver, the son of Growing Up Greene Board Vice President. Keshia Weaver.

Weaver’s 3-year-old son, who had played with Coalbie for more than half an hour, began to cry after falling while running, scraping his knee. Coalbie, Weaver said, walked over to her son and put her head on his shoulder.

“Coalbie knew what my son needed in that moment. She comforted him and sat by his side until he felt better,” said Weaver. “We were speechless and we knew that we had witnessed something special. We knew right then that Coalbie was the right fit.”

CONSOL Cares Foundation volunteered to sponsor the Pup Program and to cover expenses for Coalbie’s training and care for four years.

The foundation, established in 2019 by coal-based CONSOL Energy, held a naming contest, and Coalbie – a nod to the company and the Greene County community – won.

Coalbie excelled at obedience and therapy training, where she was presented with the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen Award. At the same time, Growing Up Greene was certified as a Therapy Dog Team, and Houser after staff completed the Therapy Dogs United therapy evaluation.

Coalbie has additional tasks. She spends time with children who are housed in Growing Up Greene’s Emergency Overnight Housing shelter, where Houser’s office is located.

She also is available to visit Greene County school districts when she’s needed for emotional support, such as grief counseling.

Beth Booker, Greene County CYS Administrator, said Coalbie and the Pup Program are making a real difference.

“We are always looking for better resources for the children we serve. Child trauma is something that all of our partners are trying to reduce. Coalbie has boosted morale within our office, and she has calmed children during contentious court hearings. We are seeing the benefit of her work right before our eyes,” said Booker.

When Coalbie isn’t working, she unwinds at home with Houser, his wife, Emily, and their sons, Tennessee and Ransom. She loves playing with the Housers’ other rescue dog, Oakley, a beagle mix six months her senior.

On a recent Thursday in juvenile court, Coalbie spent time with nearly a dozen children before noon, staying by their sides while they were inside the courtroom and hanging out with them in the lobby when they left the proceedings.

In Houser’s office, she delicately sprawled out and napped.

“She enjoys her naps throughout the day, and she earns them,” said Houser. “She is on the clock typically from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and especially on days when we have engaged with kids at court or at the CYS office, then will come back and take a nap. You can almost see the emotional drain it takes on her.”

Coalbie has a TikTok page. And she has a book, Coalbie: A Foster Care Story, written by Houser, who collaborated with Waynesburg University professor Ashlee Shafer, and illustrated by Greene County artist Grace Black. The book tells the story of Coalbie’s time in the puppy welfare system, an analogy for children facing the same challenges. All proceeds from the sale of the book are donated to Growing Up Greene.

Houser believes there are other benefits to having Coalbie around the courthouse, a place where people often are dealing with difficult moments in their lives.

“Everyone loves to see Coalbie, including the staff. She lifts everyone’s spirits,” Houser said.

“I’m not naive enough to think one program will solve these kids’ problems,” he added. “I have no doubt these kids are still worried, but now they have this furry friend who wants to engage with them. These kids know that, with Coalbie alongside them, they’re not alone.”

See more pictures and read the full story here.