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‘She’s a great buddy’: Virginia Beach prosecutor’s office welcomes facility dog

Jason Boleman//September 10, 2023

Zuhey the black labrador retriever


‘She’s a great buddy’: Virginia Beach prosecutor’s office welcomes facility dog

Jason Boleman//September 10, 2023

A recent addition at the Virginia Beach commonwealth’s attorney’s office has the ideal temperament for her new job.

She’s relaxed around people, and is “very calm, very mellow” — until she sees a squirrel or rabbit.

Zuhey, a 5-year-old black Labrador retriever, joined the commonwealth’s attorney’s office in June as the office’s facility dog. Her primary role is to provide comfort and support during interviews and trial preparation for victims and witnesses, but she helps ease stress for employees, too.

“She interacts both with victims and witnesses in our Victim-Witness Office pretty much every day,” Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Patrick Connolly said. “When victims or witnesses come in, we’ll take her around, and if anyone wants to interact with her, she’ll sit there, she’ll let them pet her.”

Connolly said Zuhey works especially well with children who come in as witnesses or victims.

“Having her there is something really special for them because they can relax,” he said. “They see a friendly face when she comes over. They can pet her.”

Zuhey follows a few cues given to her by her handlers. She can cross her paws and give “hugs” by stepping over a person and lowering herself onto their lap.

“It has a really nice effect on them, when she’s doing that,” Connolly said. “You can see their face and how they relax in an otherwise intimidating environment.”

Connolly, along with Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Robin Bland, is in charge of handling Zuhey. Zuhey lives with Bland, who described Zuhey as one of the best roommates she’s ever had.

“She’s super chill. We have a great time,” Bland said. “She does not like to be left alone, so I pretty much take her, if I can, everywhere I go, which is really nice that she travels well. She’s a great companion, she’s a great buddy.”

Beneficial impact

Macie Allen, the office’s public information officer, said the idea of getting a facility dog for the office has been “kicked around for years” by Virginia Beach Commonwealth’s Attorney Colin Stolle and others.

“[Stolle] was able to talk to different commonwealth’s attorneys throughout the state and hear how the dogs impacted their office,” Allen said. “The benefit it has on victims and witnesses really sold it for him.”

In a press release, Stolle said Zuhey’s presence in the office “gives people the ability to make it through these very difficult times.”

“A lot of the victims and witnesses coming to the courthouse are coming here to relive the worst moments of their life,” Stolle said. “To have to explain those to a judge, a jury, or an attorney can be a stressful event on top of everything they’ve gone through.”


Allen noted that there’s a “huge waitlist” for facility dogs; some companies’ waitlists are several years long. The search eventually led the office to Service Dogs of Virginia, a Charlottesville-based nonprofit that trains dogs and places them with people with disabilities, as well as provides facility dogs to courthouses and other places of need.

After meeting with Service Dogs of Virginia, Connolly and Bland were sent to a week of training in Charlottesville to learn about Zuhey and what they needed to know about handling a facility dog.

“It was a lot more intense than I anticipated,” Bland noted.

Beyond the training, Bland sends a monthly report to Service Dogs of Virginia to track her progress and her role. She also has a yearly meeting in Charlottesville with the organization.

Second career

Zuhey’s gig at the commonwealth’s attorney’s office is her second career. Prior to being placed in Virginia Beach, she was a medical service dog for a person who was wheelchair bound. When the person no longer needed to use the wheelchair, Zuhey was retrained with the skills needed in a courthouse setting.

Under Va. Code § 18.2-67.9:1, a “certified facility dog” can be used for testimony in criminal proceedings, as long as the dog is qualified and that the party applies for the order “at least 14 days before the preliminary hearing, trial date, or other hearing to which the order is to apply.”

In 2022, Fairfax County Circuit Judge Robert J. Smith granted a motion in Commonwealth v. Vargas filed by the county’s assistant commonwealth’s attorney to permit the use of Rylynn, the Fairfax County Department of Family Services’ facility dog, at trial.

Smith wrote in the opinion that Virginia is one of 19 states that “grant these remarkable creatures a special place in the courtrooms of the land” and noted that Virginia’s statute “is one of the most generous of all the facility dog statutes across the country.”

While Zuhey hasn’t gone into court yet to aid a witness in testimony, Connolly said it’s being considered in the future.

“We’ve only had her a couple of months, so we’re really just sort of getting her used to our building and our routines here,” he said.

Therapeutic value

While the waitlist to get a facility dog is long, Bland said offices that are able should take the opportunity to get a facility dog of their own.

“It changes how cases are handled, how victims come into our office, how they react, how they respond to us,” she said. “I think our office dynamic has changed.”

The benefits of a facility dog extend to the office’s employees, too. Zuhey helps ease the secondary trauma from some of the cases they work on.

Connolly said he takes Zuhey around the office when she isn’t working to let the office’s more than 100 employees interact with her.

“Just those few minutes that the employees get to take a little break and sit with her for a few minutes, you can really see the therapeutic value it has for them,” Connolly said.

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