CROWN POINT | Moxie, a playful, fawn-colored American mastiff pup, overshadowed her handler — incoming Lake County Juvenile Court Judge Thomas Stefaniak Jr. — when introduced to the press Wednesday.
Hardened officials in the courtroom melted under the dog's spell.
The reaction is expected to be repeated when Stefaniak escorts the county's new therapy dog through the Juvenile Detention Center.
Stefaniak takes the juvenile court bench Jan. 6 now that his replacement in criminal court has been decided. Highland attorney Sam Cappas will take over his old bench the same day, Stefaniak said
The now eight-week-old, 15-pound Moxie is expected to reach 180 pounds at maturity but retain her gentle, winning ways with humans.
"They sense people in need and seek them out," said Stefaniak who owned the breed himself. "I know how gentle they are."
Kids will be able to request visitation with the dog if they behave, he said.
The therapy dog trainer will set the parameters along with detention center director, he said.
To close some of the distance between himself and litigants waiting on hearings, Stefaniak said he will occasionally walk the dog through the waiting area.
The dog also will be available for community events.
"We're working with all our local providers to re-evaluate how we do things," Stefaniak said, making note of the success of horse therapy with kids.
"There's so much gloom and doom in our world here and over there, every now and then you've got to lighten up the tone a bit," he said.
"This is a very unique opportunity," said court bailiff Mark Price, who helped acquire the dog, which came cost-free to the county.
Price said having the dog embraces youth and imposes some softness and gentleness on the part of the judiciary.
"It becomes personal," he said.
The $2,100 dog was donated by Ohio-based Flying W Farms. Also contributing to the costs of upkeep are Alsip Home & Nursery Pet Center of St. John and My Smiling Dog, of Highland. A state grant also helps cover costs.
Lake County appears to be one of only three counties in the state to offer the service, the others being Porter and Marion counties.
"Tony, our dog, is considered a courthouse dog," Porter County Prosecutor Brian Gensel said.
Family law courts use the "comfort dog" for any child who could benefit, he said.
"We have used Tony quite a bit with children who are victims of abuse, adults, too," Gensel said.
After an 18-month preparation, Tony has now been with the county about three months, he said.
Children normally reticent to speak to strangers about their ordeal have been known to look forward to coming back.
"Everybody loves Tony," Gensel said. "It's clearly increased the morale in the this office."