With snores and snuggles, therapy dog Eli comforts kids at Liberty House 

Eli is an 8-year-old black Labrador retriever. Like most dogs, he loves to run, play fetch and swim in any body of water he can find. But like most humans, Eli has a job. Every day for the past 6 years, he’s slipped on a vest and headed to work at Liberty House to help children. 

Liberty House is a children’s advocacy center serving Marion and Polk Counties. Since 1999, the organization has provided assessments and services to children who may have been abused or neglected. 

When child abuse is suspected, the Liberty House team begins with a conversation. Megan Neilson, child forensic interviewer at Liberty House, is Eli’s handler and his companion both in and outside of work. She explained that Eli offers crucial support that parents and guardians just can’t provide.

“During the interview, kids can’t have a caregiver or anyone with them in the interview room. It’s designed to be neutral, and kids need every opportunity to say what they need to say,” said Neilson. “Sometimes kids don’t want to say something in front of their parents, and sometimes it’s just not safe to do that. In order to give them some comfort while talking about really difficult things, we have Eli.”

Kids can sit next to Eli on the couch as they explain what’s happened to them. Eli can also go into medical exam rooms with children. Sometimes, Neilson said, he makes those interactions less stressful. 

“As forensic interviewers, we’re trained to build rapport with kids. But Eli just really breaks the ice for us,” she said. 

“Occasionally during the interviews, he starts snoring. His timing is really interesting. Usually, we’re talking about something super serious and then he’ll let out this giant snore. It just makes the kids laugh and brings some levity to the moment,” Nielson said. 

Eli is a therapy dog at Liberty House who comforts children during interviews about child abuse (Courtesy/Photos By Orion)

Eli is a graduate of the Facility Dogs program at Duo Dogs. This nationwide nonprofit trains dogs like Eli to stay calm during very difficult and intense conversations. In his high-level development as a facility dog, Eli was trained to work with professionals and accompany children for forensic interviews and exams. He also knows how to let children cling to him and cuddle him when they need a little extra support. 

Organizations like Liberty House don’t pay for trained dogs. They apply for them and describe what they want these pups to do every day. 

The idea of adding a dog to Liberty House started with Neilson. In a previous job, her team would borrow therapy dogs to comfort kids during difficult discussions. And sometimes, kids would ask if they could bring their pets to their appointments. An application was sent to Duo Dogs, and when it was approved, Eli joined the team in 2017. 

SELCO Community Credit Union heard about Eli in 2020, and a partnership was born.

“We knew we wanted to give Eli the support he showed the kids on a daily basis. Since then, we’ve helped cover the costs of Eli’s vet check-ups, food, treats and toys,” said Olivia Sorensen, Senior Community Development Specialist at SELCO Community Credit Union.

The SELCO team also spoils Eli with an epic birthday party every year. The celebration started small, but it’s grown with each iteration. 

“Our team spoils him with even more toys and treats every year for his birthday in October. Of course, we fully decorate the branch to celebrate the occasion,” Sorensen said. “There’s no way we could say no to that face!”

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Jean Dion is a freelance writer and marketing professional. She's lived in Salem for about 10 years. When not writing, she dabbles in gardening, photography, and caring for her dogs, cats, and rabbits.