Therapy dog offers comfort to students, staff at Magruder High following shooting

Pepper, the courthouse facility dog is specially trained and her handler, Abby Stavitsky says Pepper understands 50 commands. Pepper’s very social and loves meeting new people in a variety of settings, says Stavitsky.

In the week following a shooting inside Magruder High School in Montgomery County, Maryland, counselors and members of the school community offered what comfort they could to the staff and students.

One parent came up with the idea to provide a different kind of help for the school community.

Parents got in touch with Abby Stavitsky, a retired assistant U.S. Attorney in the District of Columbia. Stavitsky volunteers with her 5-year-old black Labrador Retriever, Pepper, at the D.C. Superior Court. Pepper provides support to survivors of crimes at the courthouse.

Stavitsky’s response when she got the call asking if Pepper could visit the school: “I said, of course, absolutely.”

She arrived at the school Thursday at lunchtime and was immediately surrounded by students wanting to pet Pepper.

“She’s like a magnet. She’s an absolute furry magnet,” Stavitsky said.

“At one point, they made an announcement over the loudspeaker that there was a therapy dog in the building, and then things got really, really crazy” Stavitsky said with a laugh.

Pepper lapped up the attention.

“I mean, everybody was loving it,” Stavitsky said.

It’s the job Pepper was trained for as a courthouse facility dog.

“She just lay there, sat there and just enjoyed all the love. And in return, she gave a lot of love and affection to these kids,” Stavitsky said.

During a visit like the one at Magruder, Stavitsky said it’s her job to let Pepper take over. “And so what I try to do is to kind of melt into the background and disappear.”

Pepper knows what to do. She’ll lie down, calm and relaxed, accept the petting and affection, and roll over to accept belly rubs.

Stavitsky said students often have questions.

“They want to know her name and how old she is, what she does and things like that. But I do try to remain in the background so that they can focus primarily on Pepper.”

Randall McGill is the president of the Magruder High School PTSA and said his son, a 10th-grader, talked about how beneficial the visit was after the traumatic events of last week.

“It was a real bright spot to what was otherwise a difficult and trying and dark” time, McGill said.

McGill said his son wished the dog could be there every day. As a PTSA president, and as a parent, McGill said his son is on to something.

“We don’t need to wait for the tragic events of last Friday to provide this,” McGill said.

Between the course the pandemic has taken, the stresses on school staffing and the shooting of a student at the school, the current school year has been incredibly difficult, he said.

“I would encourage all of our schools to explore this option — having a therapy dog visit periodically just as a point of stress relief,” McGill said.

McGill’s voice brightened as he talked about the impact of the affectionate, calming presence of a single dog. “Everyone has noted how happy they were that Pepper the therapy dog was there.”

Stavitsky was clearly gratified to hear that the visit had a positive impact.

Pepper’s not unique, she said, in that there are dogs providing comfort in courthouses, police departments and victim’s advocates offices across the country.

From her work in the judicial system, Stavitsky knows the toll that can take on, not only crime victims, but also people employed in the field.

“What I’ve come to realize over the years is that it’s not just the survivors or the victims that need her,” Stavitsky said. “The judges, the attorneys, many, many people need her because of what they go through, what they’re exposed to day to day. So she’s been a tremendous help to a lot of people in many different situations.”

Asked if there are times when the demands of her task providing comfort to others takes a toll on Pepper, Stavitsky said yes.

“We’re coming into contact with people who are very stressed; they’re worried; they’re angry; they’re scared. I mean, they’re all different emotions, and she absorbs all of that, she really does,” Stavitsky said.

That’s when it’s clear Pepper needs her “decompression time,” and doing that is pretty simple.

She slips Pepper out of the vest that identifies the dog as a service animal. That cue tells her she can just play and be a dog for a while.

That means stepping into the hallways where the D.C. Superior Court chambers are located, and “I’ll throw a ball for her down the hall,” Stavitsky said.

When Pepper’s ready, the vest goes back on, and it’s time to go to work again, helping people offload their stress and grief.

On working with Pepper by her side: “It’s definitely a great way to spend my retirement years,” Stavitsky said.

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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