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Ottawa County courts' canine advocate turns 1

By Audra Gamble/The Holland Sentinel • Feb 16, 2019 at 6:00 PM

Ottawa County’s cutest employee, Griffin, is almost ready to take his place in the courtroom on a regular basis.

The 1-year-old black Labrador retriever is the county’s canine court advocate. Owned by victim advocate Jacquelyn Hilgeman, Griffin will sit with child victims in the courtroom while they testify, making the children feel more at ease.

On Wednesday, court staff at Holland’s 58th District Court met Griffin, celebrating his first birthday (which was Feb. 6) with a party and cupcake-eating competition.

“When I took the position as a victim advocate, I said I was willing to bring a canine in,” Hilgeman said.

It took over a year for Hilgeman to find a dog that would be a good fit for Ottawa County, as most court advocate dogs are puppies that start Leader Dogs for the Blind training, but don’t meet the requirements. Griffin was a star student, smart and calm, but medical issues prevented him from becoming a leader dog.

“He flunked out because of his hip dysplasia,” Hilgeman said. “He’s great with the kids, and he gets along with everybody really well.”

Griffin already underwent a surgery in November 2018 to correct the hip dysplasia and will have one more surgery at the end of February. Once’s he’s fully healed, Griffin will be hanging out with Hilgeman in the Grand Haven courthouse most days. If all goes well with his second surgery, Griffin will be on the job full-time by the end of March.

Hip dysplasia is common in large dog breeds, causing joint problems where the leg meets the hip. It can lead to arthritis, mobility problems and pain because the hip socket isn’t formed properly.

Right now, he’s on duty on a part-time basis as he finishes recovering from his surgeries. He’s already comforted an 8-year-old girl in court who testified against her father and will continue to work with the Children’s Advocacy Center to support young crime victims.

“It was amazing,” Hilgeman said of how Griffin supported the young victim. “She sat still the entire time and confronted her dad. Griffin just laid there and did his thing next to her. Court doesn’t have to be so scary with him there.”

Ottawa County previously had a court advocate canine named Sydney, but she moved away in 2016 when her owner got a new job on the east side of the state.

Bradley Knoll, chief judge of the Ottawa County 58th District Court, said he’s happy to see a new advocate canine back in the county.

“As much fun as we have with him as staff, he really does an important service,” Knoll said. “It really reduces the level of tension in the courtroom.”

While Griffin ate a peanut butter and carrot cupcake, Knoll and staff from the court and the prosecutor’s office competed to see who could eat cupcakes out of dog bowls the fastest. Knoll declared a premature victory for himself, but Assistant Prosecutor Tyler Mesman took home the medal for Griffin’s first annual cupcake competition.

When he’s working, Griffin wears a bandana to signify he’s on duty. But as soon as the bandana comes off, Hilgeman said Griffin is still a playful puppy.

“Everybody just loves him,” she said.

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