Lebanon County government may be going to the dogs. 

One dog, actually, as the county’s probation services department plans to explore the possibility of purchasing man’s best friend to serve in the county court system.

On Thursday, April 4, County Commissioners voted unanimously to grant permission for Audrey Fortna, director of Probation Services, to send a letter of support along with an application to Grantville-based Susquehanna Service Dogs. 

Once the letter is received, Lebanon County will be placed on a waiting list for the potential purchase and training of a dog, if the commissioners decide to give formal approval at a later date.

Fortna and Lebanon County President Judge John C. Tylwalk presented the proposal to the commissioners and both said this is not a new concept to Lebanon County. Fortna added that the program has a successful track record in Lancaster and York counties. 

“I think the last time we talked about it was three or four years ago, and I have to acknowledge that I was not a big advocate of it at the time,” said Tylwalk. “It’s like, ‘I don’t think we should have this dog running around the courthouse, what’s going to happen here.’”

But then he had an experience that changed his mind. 

Tylwalk attended a professional conference last fall in State College, where he witnessed the benefits of employing dogs in a courtroom environment during a seminar on that topic, which included a visit from several such facility animals. 

“Frankly, throughout the discussion, there were significant anecdotal stories of the benefits of a facility dog, and, frankly, not just limited to the treatment court set-up,” he said. “But actual use with regard to a lot of kids in dependency court and custody cases and things of that sort. So we’re talking about getting a facility dog that we would initially start with our specialty court folks, but I would hope we would expand it, probably not with much delay, into those other areas.”

The program’s goal is for a facility animal to have a calming presence during stressful situations when court is in session.

“I’m convinced, at least based on what I was exposed to, that it can be a positive thing, a calming kind of thing – for kids, in particular, and in various stressful situations,” he said.

The county won’t necessarily have the dog anytime soon since there is an extensive application process, according to Tylwalk. There is a 12- to 24-month waiting period for a dog once the application is reviewed and accepted.

“It could take us as long as two years to actually get a dog and there will be lots of issues that will have to be addressed between now and then,” he said. “Those issues have been addressed in other counties. I don’t think we want to reinvent the wheel here. We have access to that information, and I am sure we will have several discussions over the course of time before we would actually be able to get the dog.” 

Tylwalk said it is significant to note that there is no cost to county taxpayers to implement this initiative. Grants exist, as well as probation supervision fee funds that can be used to cover costs since the expense is a recognized enhancement of that department’s services.

“There has been different funding that’s been used to not only fund the purchase of the dog but for the ongoing care of the dog,” he said. “The AOPC (Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts) has grants available, and in a couple of counties the AOPC provided all of the start-up funding, if you will, for the purchase of the dog, paying for the initial training and all that kind of stuff.”

Fortna said the application requires a letter from County Commissioners stating that the animal would be permitted on county property. Commissioners voted to permit Fortna to write and submit that letter along with the application.

Commissioner Jo Ellen Litz asked how many dogs would be used and if there are any liability issues. 

Tylwalk said there would be only one dog, and that liability is one issue that has to be worked out before the purchase is made.There’s another option to address liability, he added. 

“I know that in at least one of the counties, maybe two of the counties, the dog is considered to be an actual employee of the county and is covered by liability insurance as an employee of the county,” he said. “So there are different approaches and we will gather all of that information as we move forward on this, so that whatever options are available, we will present them to you to have that kind of discussion and which way is the best way to go if we ultimately decide to do this.”

Tylwalk reiterated that he changed his mind and is enthusiastic about making this happen. 

Commission chairman Bob Phillips asked if the supervision fund was healthy enough to cover costs if grant funding were to be unavailable.

“I believe it is,” answered Tylwalk. “The initial main expense will be the purchase of the dog, which I believe was quoted as $5,000, give or take, and beyond that it would be the maintenance of the dog – food, veterinary care, those kinds of things, chewy toys, whatever.”

There are no worries about finding willing county employees to become the dog’s handlers. Numerous county employees reportedly are willing to take on that role; however, there is a plan on who those individuals will be.

“We have identified individual primary handlers in the office and an individual that would be the main houser of the dog,” said Fortna. “Initially, we would like to start services with our treatment courts and both of the handlers that we have identified are officers in the treatment courts.”

In a separate action, commissioners agreed to provide a letter of support to the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development for the Palmyra Library’s Expanding for Tomorrow initiative.

The goal is to address space for the following needs: workforce development, which includes being a resource for work-related supports; educational programming, meetings and tutoring provided by the library and community groups in the education field; health-related meetings for individuals and groups; and provide broadband access to increase free wi-fi access for community members.

In other business, the commissioners voted to:

  • Provide a hotel tax grant request in the amount of $5,000 of a projected $44,266.43 cost for the 33rd Hinkelfest on Sept. 13-15 in Fredericksburg. The annual three-day event is a celebration of all things chicken.
  • Add four ladies to the Women’s Commission for three-year terms that begin on April 10 and run through 2027. Those individuals are Amber Hoopengarner, Tiffany Painter, Maggie Progin and Taelor Norwood, all of Lebanon.
  • Accept the treasurer’s report and various personnel transactions.
  • Approve the minutes of their March 21 meeting and workshop on April 3. The workshop was a private session to discuss personnel matters.
  • Grant real estate tax exemptions for three fully disabled veterans. 
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James Mentzer is a freelance writer whose published works include the books Pennsylvania Manufacturing: Alive and Well; Bucks County: A Snapshot in Time; United States Merchant Marine Academy: In Service to the Nation 1943-2018; A Century of Excellence: Spring Brook Country Club 1921-2021; Lancaster...


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