Service dogs are typically raised and trained to help one person.
Oak, the nearly 9-year-old black lab who worked as a therapy dog at both the Lewis County Law and Justice Center and Providence Centralia Hospital, helped hundreds.
“He had that drive and that ambition to help others and he had just an uncanny perception of who needed help,” said Oak’s owner, Karlyn Fritz.
Oak died late Wednesday night due to cancer.
Lewis County Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer said he was met with “some upset people” in the office Thursday morning when they learned Oak had passed.
“He’s going to be missed,” he said. “It’s not something that we were prepared for. It was just very sudden.”
Oak was born and raised to be a guide dog for the blind. As part of the program, Fritz took Oak in as an 8-week-old fluffy puppy in August 2012 and raised him until he was 15 months old, at which time he went back for professional training. While most guide dogs for blind people are trained with their clients on the Guide Dogs campus, Oak was chosen to fly out to train with an off-campus client who had more complex needs for Oak to help with. The two ended up not being a good fit, and after less than a year, Oak was sent back to Fritz. Because he had already been trained to help a specific client, Guide Dogs for the Blind chose not to retrain Oak, and he was officially retired at just 2 years old.
At the time, Fritz was disappointed with the decision not to retrain Oak for another client.
“In hindsight, when the true full picture unfolded, I realized had he gone to someone a little more easy and suitable that he never would have come back as such a blessing to us in our county,” Fritz said.
In 2015, Fritz reached out to Meyer at the Lewis County Prosecutor’s Office to see if there was a need Oak could fill at the Lewis County Law and Justice Center.
Meyer had already been considering the possibility of getting a therapy dog to comfort people involved in court proceedings, and after confirming that Oak had the skills for the job, Oak started work.
“It was an unusual setup because typically when you have a courthouse dog like that, they would live with someone in the office, but I or someone else would pick him up, drop him off or we would arrange for him to get to the office and get home, and he just became a regular part of the office,” Meyer said.
While on duty, Oak was a “professional rug,” Meyer said.
“He would just lay there and the kids would love on him and they’d start talking,” Meyer said. “He did some great things. It was amazing just to watch people react to him.”
In the courtroom, Oak’s job was to lay under the witness stand, where for the most part, no one but the person on the stand could tell he was there. But he was available to anyone who had business in the Law and Justice Center and freely offered his love and support to witnesses, victims and defendants alike.
“He was so attentive to each and every need and so adaptive to whomever needed what,” Fritz said.
Oak even took care of his fellow employees.
“As you can imagine, we don’t necessarily have the easiest jobs or the easiest material and all of that,” Meyer said. “ … And he used to put his head on your lap like ‘I know you need me, what do you got?’”
When the work vest came off, Meyer described Oak as a dog who loved to run around and play tug-of-war.
“He was a lot of fun to have around,” he said.
In December 2017, Oak started a second job at Providence Centralia Hospital, where Fritz worked as a nurse and coordinator for the hospital’s PAWS program, which provides therapy dog visits for hospital patients. Oak and Fritz joined other dog-volunteer pairs to visit hospital patients to provide comfort and relieve stress.
While most of the PAWS teams were sidelined due to concerns about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Fritz and Oak got approval a few months ago to resume visits at the Providence hospital that Fritz works at.
He was even scheduled to do a round of visits at the hospital on Wednesday, until Fritz noticed that Oak had suddenly lost his appetite and become lethargic.
“He had gotten up and he had eaten breakfast like normal and when it came time to have lunch he didn’t eat, which is a complete foreign thing for a lab,” she said.
Oak was rushed to his vet, who suspected the issue might be either a blood clot or cancer in his spleen. He went in for emergency surgery that same day and the surgical team quickly found that Oak had cancer, though not in his spleen — in his kidney.
“Unfortunately he was full of bleeding, cancerous tumors and there was nothing they could do because he was internally bleeding,” Fritz said.
Oak’s vet told Fritz the cancer Oak had was extremely aggressive, and he likely hadn’t had it for more than a few weeks.
“To know that it was something very rapid and that regardless we could not have done anything about it gave me a little bit of comfort in knowing that he got to live the passionate, giving life to the very end and that he didn’t have to suffer,” said Fritz. “And to me, I didn’t have to decide when or how his life would come to an end, it was totally on the circumstances and his terms.”
Fritz said her goodbyes to Oak Wednesday night.
“Yes, my life will be forever changed, and I’ll forever miss him, but I’m also trying to focus on the fact that he did forever change my life for the positive and get me through some very difficult and traumatic times. And he not only did that for me, but he did that for so many people in our county, within the Law and Justice Center and in the hospital, and with anybody he would meet,” said Fritz, adding that she intends to “continue his legacy in whatever way that looks like because he was an incredible boy.”
One of many forms that legacy could take is Fritz’ 4-year-old black lab, Acorn.
Unlike Oak, who was born and raised as a service dog, Fritz privately purchased Acorn, so she got to name him.
The idea for the name came from Fritz’ sister.
“My sister told me, ‘Sissy, if you want another Oak, you have to start with an Acorn.”
Acorn is working on bootcamp “and trying to get his skills in order, to hopefully someday do this type of work for others as well,” said Fritz.
Meyer said he is working with the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office, which has its own courthouse facility dog, to potentially have them provide therapy dog services at the Law and Justice Center on occasion, and has reached out to the Courthouse Dogs Foundation to see about getting a permanent facility dog for the Lewis County Law and Justice Center.
“It’s one of those things where you don’t realize what a benefit it is until you have it and you don’t realize how you go without that benefit,” said Meyer. “So we’re going to try and figure out what to do from here on out.”