Penny, the first domestic violence canine advocate in Allegheny County and the first shelter dog in the State to provide courtroom support to victims, died peacefully on Monday, June 26, at the elderly age of 16. Penny served as a trendsetter in the state, opening the doors for other canine advocates in courtrooms, and was recognized nationally for her work. In her career, she provided emotional support to countless victims with her calm demeanor, strong presence, and intuitive understanding of how to help those in need.
Penny was the lead canine advocate for the PAWS For Empowerment Program at Crisis Center North, a domestic violence and counseling resource center serving victims in Allegheny County. It is because of Penny that the Center’s award-winning PAWS program exists today to provide animal assisted therapy, courtroom accompaniment, pet friendly transitional housing and shelter for victims and their companion animals, community training on the links between human and animal abuse, and tangible support for victims and pets in need.
Born in humble circumstances at a shelter in 2007, the spaniel-mix could never know the legacy she would leave on the world after being adopted by Grace Coleman, the President & CEO of Crisis Center North. From the start, seeing Penny comfortably sleeping at the bottom of a pile of her brothers and sisters, Grace knew that Penny was special: It didn’t take long for her gifts to become apparent.
In 2010, Grace decided to bring Penny into the office and the events of that day changed the trajectory of the Center, Penny’s life, and victim services in Pennsylvania. When they arrived, Penny met Steven, a young boy who didn’t want to go to his counseling session Steven had witnessed horrific abuse in his home but could not open up or talk about it. While the counselor and his mother were attempting to coax him into his session, Penny arrived, and he immediately ran to her and started talking. He told her he didn’t want to go to counseling, that he didn’t want to talk.
Seeing this, Grace told Steven he didn’t have to go to counseling, but that Penny could really use some: Could she use his session? Steven eagerly agreed and led Penny to the counseling room and sat down with her inside. The counselor followed, but on that day, Penny took the lead. She sat with Steven and listened to him, as for the first time, he started speaking about what he had experienced. Steven talked and talked, letting out everything, and Penny gave him the strength he needed. Steven left counseling that day wanting to come back again to see Penny, and the counselor, amazed, told Grace that they had covered more ground in one hour with Penny than they had in six months: “You have to do something with this dog!”
Because of this encounter, and after intensive research and training, the PAWS Program officially began in 2011 with Penny and the Center’s counselor providing animal assisted therapy services. In therapy, counselors soon learned that Penny would not be content to simply be an emotional support animal, but that she intended to directly help her human partners diagnose hidden emotional issues facing victims. Counselors started to watch for cues from Penny, who through her actions, would cue to them what the clients in counseling needed. If they were anxious, she would look at them afar, giving them space. If depressed, she would be right there with them, touching them with a head on a knee or by leaning against their legs. Based on Penny’s feedback, counselors were able to more quickly get to the heart of what clients needed.
Penny’s work soon attracted notice.
Soon after, the National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA) invited Penny and the Center to present on utilizing service and therapy dogs within the field of victim services, and in 2012, they were invited by the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency (PCCD) to present at their Pathways Conference. Next, the Cape May and Cumberland Counties Prosecutors' Offices invited the Center to present at their keynote workshop to discuss integrated canines into victim service programs.
In 2013, with the support of the District Attorney’s Office and local Magisterial Courts, Penny was invited into local courts to provide support for victims.
“It’s hard being the first at anything, but Penny’s pioneering efforts in being a comfort dog for victims, especially children, has resulted in the comfort dog program now being a permanent part of victim services in the county,” said Mike Manko, Communications and Marketing Manager for Sheriff Kevin Kraus, and long-time community supporter of the PAWS program.
Though Penny thrived in counseling, it was at court where Penny found her true love for the job, and also where her personality truly shined. She took exceptionally well to her new routine, becoming a beloved fixture of the courts she attended, and it was often joked that she didn’t need her human handler to do her job. Penny, the consummate professional, would make her rounds, greet everyone, and then find those who needed her most. Often, as she had worked with many handlers over the years, she would impatiently turn around and sigh at them as they attempted to acclimate themselves to the court. Penny would look back at them and say it all with her eyes: She didn’t have time to wait as she knew what needed to be done and there were people who needed her help.
Her human partners soon learned Penny had a mind of her own and was not afraid to do what needed to be done alone or even argue with them if she disagreed in their approach.
One day, while her human partner was working with a victim preparing to testify, the woman’s abuser started running down the hallway toward them. Penny pulled away from her handler and moved toward the man running at them and then suddenly turned sideways, blocking the victim. The man stopped short, and seeing this, a police officer intervened and led the man away. No one had trained Penny to do this, but she saw a potential threat to the woman she was helping and kept her safe.
Another day, at another court, Penny and her handler were finishing up their work with domestic violence victims and getting ready to leave. On their way out, they passed an open door to a courtroom and Penny looked in and froze. A nervous, despondent looking man was about to start testifying and when he saw Penny, his eyes locked with hers.
Penny’s handler tried to coax her on, telling her that this man was not one of the people they served, that they did work only with domestic violence victims, but Penny refused to move or look away from the man. Seeing Penny had made up her mind, the handler stopped trying to convince her and let her work. Still gazing into Penny’s eyes from across the room, the man started testifying about how several other men had held him down and sexually assaulted him. He provided the details he needed to give. The pain in his voice was clear, but he continued to tell his story, nominally to the court, but actually to Penny. Penny stood the entire time staring at him, never moving. After his testimony, the man approached Penny and her handler.
“I don’t know why a dog is here today,” he said to the handler as he touched Penny, “but I couldn’t have done that without her.”
Because of Penny, the impact of the PAWS Program continued growing. In 2016, the program introduced Ari, its second canine advocate, and its third, Rune, in 2020. Because of their strong relationship with Penny, local courts agreed to give the puppy Rune unparalleled access to their courts at only 12 weeks old, essentially allowing her to grow up inside a courtroom. In 2017, the PAWS program was honored statewide by the Governor’s office with the Victim Service Pathfinder Program of the Year Award: Penny was, of course, among those accepting the award in Harrisburg that year.
Since then, Penny and the work of the Center’s other canine advocates have been well documented in the local media and beyond, including Penny participating on national television with her owner Grace on Court TV. In addition, in 2021, Penny was honored on ESPN-2 as a Runner-Up for in the national AKC Heroes: 2021 Awards for Canine Excellence.
Penny led a life filled with purpose, achievement, and service, and has left a legacy in Allegheny County and beyond. She has touched countless lives, helped create new services to keep victims and their pets safe and together, and opened many doors for new canines in the field of victim service.
“I would look at Penny, who was born in a shelter, and think about how much she has done to make a difference in the world,” said one client of Crisis Center North. “It made me think, if she can do it, then maybe I can too.”
What Penny accomplished in a short 16 years is overwhelming, but those who knew her closely will always remember her most for who she was as a “person.”
“Penny may have looked like a dog,” said a Center staff member, “but she was a human at heart. She had a strong sense of justice, of right and wrong, and of empathy.”
In her work, Penny was no-nonsense and serious behind the scenes, stubborn and even indignant when she thought someone was holding her back from doing the work she needed to do to help someone, but was nothing but a beacon of understanding, compassion, and strength to those in need.
Outside of work, Penny was a renowned athlete, mastering agility courses with ease, and also well versed in scent work, having attended scent dog training classes and showing a natural aptitude. She volunteered in the community to see nursing home patients, hospice patients, and local students struggling with the pressure of finals. She loved her family, especially her owner Grace: Those that saw them together often described them as “soul mates.”
“It was an honor to call Penny a friend,” said Mike Manko, “Though she will be dearly missed, she is no doubt comforting everyone she meets at the rainbow bridge.”
Anyone wishing to donate in honor of Penny’s memory and lifetime of service can do so online at CrisisCenterNorth.org.