Pet Connections

Crisis Center North and Penny- A Winning Combination for Victims of Domestic Violence

By Cheri Herschell

My journey with Penny, a medium sized Spaniel mix, and Crisis Center North began in October 2010, when Grace Coleman, CCN’s Executive Director,

brought Penny to my Canine Good Citizen class. Grace was pretty nonchalant about her ultimate goal for Penny, and never really let on that Penny was hiding a wonderful talent- the ability to read people, their situations, and help victims of domestic violence overcome the trauma they’ve experienced.

Penny passed her Canine Good Citizen test in spite of Grace, who showed up about an hour early to practice. She was overly concerned about the performance of the team, but Penny wasn’t! Of course, Penny aced the exam. Before leaving, Grace asked me for a reference on getting Penny tested for Therapy Dog work. At that point, I had no idea that Grace had long term plans for me, as well!

About a month later, Grace contacted me that she had completed Penny’s therapy dog test, and wanted to discuss her plans for Penny. She wanted Penny to be a therapy dog at Crisis Center North (a grand responsibility in and of itself); but, she also wanted this little black and white spaniel mix to be an advocate for victims of domestic violence. Grace wanted Penny to go to work with clients both in and out of the Center; and ultimately wanted Penny to attend hearings at court with victims to assist them in dealing with the trauma and stress that often accompanies a court room visit. 

I explained to Grace that it takes a very special dog for this kind of work. A dog that is instinctive and emotional- able to read people’s feelings and state of being, and react appropriately. Intrigued, I set up a meeting to discuss Crisis Center North’s newly Animal Assisted Therapy Project.

Upon seeing Penny in her “work environment”, I knew she was special. She was downstairs with the majority of the staff, and seemed drawn to one particular person sitting at a desk. Penny was doing what she does best- lending a loving gaze and soft fur perfect for stroking. Grace had, indeed, found just the right dog for the job.

Today, Crisis Center North’s Animal Assisted Therapy team is an integral part of the work at Crisis Center North. Penny assists in therapy sessions with counselor Carly Cooper. Carly refers to Penny as her co-therapist. In her role as Canine Therapist, Penny works very interactively with Carly to share information in the way that only a canine can!  In her role as Allegheny County’s first Canine Court Advocate, Penny accompanies Legal Advocate Rachel Olszewski various to magistrate courts, during the week, where they assist victims that have suffered from simple assault, aggravated assault, harassment and terroristic threats. Victims are generally in these venues for their preliminary hearing.

 In these settings, Penny helps the professionals as much as victims. The police officers and court workers flock to her- a lovely respite in what can be a very stressful and demanding environment. 

Like most of Crisis Center North’s staff, Penny also attends many public and educational events that spread the word about the agency’s free services. From school visits to national domestic violence organization conferences, Penny is a highly requested speaker. As Penny is the first shelter dog in the state of Pennsylvania to provide services in court venues, she and her human team have been invited speakers at such venues as the National Organization of Victim Assistance Conference (2011); the Pennsylvania Commission Against Crime and Delinquency’s Pathways Conference (2012); the New Challenges New Solutions Conference in Cape May New Jersey (2013); and most recently was the keynote speaker at the “Love is in the Air” (2015) shelter fundraiser, benefiting her first home, Action for Animals in Latrobe, PA. Most recently, she was asked by the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency to speak about the Crisis Center North’s program as a “best practice program” in utilizing canines within the field of victim services (2015).

The community has recognized Penny for her work. In November 2013, Penny was awarded the “Four with Four Paws” Award from Pittsburgh Magazine for being one of the city’s four most influential animals. By June of 2014, the Pennsylvania Commission Against Crime and Delinquency (PCCD) selected CCN’s canine work as one of four of the most innovative practices within Pennsylvania’s crime victim movement. Selected programs are featured in the annual report of the Office of Victims of Crime (OVC), which is housed within the Office of Justice Programs’ in Washington, D.C. OVC features the most innovative programs when testifying to Congress and others about the importance of the availability of innovative services for victims through Victims of Crime Act Funding (VOCA). In October 2014, Verizon Wireless honored Penny as the Hopeline Dog for her outstanding work with victims of domestic violence. Currently, Penny is being considered for a Professional Innovation Award from the U.S. Department of Justice. If selected, she will receive her award from the U.S. Attorney General in Washington D.C. during Crime Victims Awareness Month.

Penny is taught the various skills she needs in her work by utilizing what I have coined as “Intuitive Training”. This method uses positive reinforcement (treats, a toy, petting) to encourage a dog to perform in the way we would like, but it is different in one key aspect. Dogs are also encouraged to learn behaviors by thinking through their actions, not by force or feeling compelled to obey or risk punishment. We never yell at or physically punish a dog when they are practicing a behavior, even if they get a well-known command wrong. For example, when teaching “Sit” we initially will use a treat the dog is interested in, and hold it above its head. Naturally, a dog will tip their head back to look, and their rump will sit. The dog then gets the treat. We have not even spoken to the dog at this point, as we are allowing the dog to think through what she wants from the trainer. After the behavior is repeatable (the dog is sitting immediately when we put our hand/treat over their head), we begin adding a command.

The Intuitive Training Method can also be used to address problem behaviors. For example, it is useful, if you have a dog that jumps on people. This behavior is easily modified using Intuitive Training. We set the dog up in a situation where the dog usually exhibits the jumping behavior. When the dog jumps, the person does not yell, push, or back away. They simply turn their back or ignore the dog. The jumping will likely continue, and probably become more persistent (as the dog is not getting the “attention” it usually gets, even if that attention was negative). Eventually, the dog will stop jumping. They may turn away, or sit and stare at you like “Why isn’t this working anymore?” If the dog turns away, you praise them immediately. If the dog is still paying attention to you but no longer jumping, the dog must not jump for 3 seconds before it is rewarded. In this way, the dog is LEARNING, not being forced to comply against her will. They begin to understand that it is in their best interest to behave, because they get nothing when they misbehave. There’s actually very little verbal communication in Intuitive Training, because we do not want the dog to focus on or be confused by our words. This training method produces a dog that is stable, balanced, and an overall joy to be around. More importantly, the dog knows how to behave. And the dog behaves all the time, not just when it is instructed to. This is particularly important for a dog like Penny that works in a wide variety of professional settings. Crisis Center North’s handlers need to know that they can count on the canine in all situations.

By using this training method, we have taught Penny basic commands that she understands and follows, as well as any “traditionally trained” dog. But by allowing her to think through situations and learn how to make the best possible decision, she is comfortable with using her own judgment when it comes to interacting with victims of violence. Some victims need space, and Penny will stay within line of sight but will not move closer until the person opens up. Others, especially those suffering from depression, are in need of close physical contact. Penny will sit as close as she can to these clients, often touching them to make sure she is available whenever they need her.

Crisis Center North is also unique in that they are utilizing a shelter rescue dog in this work. Penny is the first shelter dog in the state of Pennsylvania to work as a canine court advocate. Victims seem to have a “connection” with Penny- at some point, both of them probably felt very unwanted and unloved, as they sought a stable home. Seeing how Penny has persevered and succeeded gives victims a sense of hope for themselves.

Please support the work of Crisis Center North and Penny, CCN’s Victim Assistance Canine by visiting . All contributions go directly towards Penny’s work with victims and furthering the cause of Animal Assisted Therapy at Crisis Center North.


To learn more about Crisis Center North and the services it offers the community, a listing of upcoming events, or find ways you can help, please visit their website at . 

If you or someone you care about is a victim of domestic violence, please call CCN’s Emergency Hotline which provides support for victims, friends and family of domestic violence. A trained staff member or volunteer can be reached 24-hours a day at 412-364-6728 or 1-866-782-0911. 



December 14, 2023
December 14, 2023