Valerie Eldredge and her dog Nephi share a hug at Eldredge's office at the Aroostook County Courthouse in Houlton. Eldredge is the victim/witness advocate and Nephi has become the courthouse's unofficial volunteer helping comfort clients. Credit: Joseph Cyr / Houlton Pioneer Times

HOULTON, Maine — Entering a courthouse can be intimidating, especially for those seeking assistance as a victim of a crime.

Fortunately, for those coming to the Office of the District Attorney in Houlton, there is a gentle giant waiting to provide comfort.

Nephi, a 3-year-old English Mastiff weighing nearly 200 pounds, can look pretty intimidating, but the certified therapy dog/volunteer is as gentle as they come. He has proven to be a remarkable asset to the office, and District Attorney Todd Collins hopes to make Aroostook the first district to use courthouse dogs to help crime victims.

Nephi, an English Mastiff, anxiously awaits an exit from a Mini Cooper Dec. 13, to start a day of volunteer work at the Aroostook County Courthouse in Houlton. Credit: Joseph Cyr / Houlton Pioneer Times)

Nephi is owned by Valerie Eldredge, the victim/witness advocate at the courthouse. Eldredge is trained to support victims of crime, whether that be through emotional support, providing victims’ rights information or helping to find much-needed resources. Advocates frequently accompany victims and their family members through the criminal justice proceedings.

And Nephi is right there to help them, too.

“My husband Jason told me I could get a puppy and we have six kids, so I wanted something lazy that was good with kids,” Eldredge said. “I knew exactly what kind of dog I wanted — a Mastiff.”

Finding the right dog proved challenging as she at first explored the idea of rescuing a dog versus buying one. She called breeders as far away as Ohio to find her new puppy, but she ultimately located a breeder in Oakfield who had exactly the dog she was looking for.

At the time, the Eldredge family was living in Bar Harbor, but she was familiar with Aroostook County, having grown up in Merrill. A 2002 graduate of Southern Aroostook Community School, Eldredge was put in contact with Richard and Rosie Tracy of R&R Kennel in Oakfield, and the match was almost instantaneous.

She met Nephi at 5 weeks old, when he was the runt of the litter. A few short weeks later when she picked him up, he was 15 pounds.

“All the other puppies were super excited, but he was just super chill, so I knew he was perfect for our family,” she said. “I knew right away that he would be perfect for a job as a therapy dog.”

She started working with Nephi, getting him accustomed to being around others. When he was 6 months old, she knew he was destined to be a therapy dog. However, Nephi had to wait until his first birthday before he could take the official test.

The Eldredges eventually moved to Merrill, where her husband runs the family farm of miniature cows.

She joined the District Attorney’s Office as the victim/witness advocate in September and quickly learned that District Attorney Todd Collins was exploring the notion of adding an official therapy dog to the roster.

“We were working on getting a dog for the DAO (District Attorney’s Office) as a courthouse facility dog,” explained District Attorney Todd Collins. “I was working on a plan for one, when Valerie found us and agreed to work with the DAO. That she had a therapy dog was pure serendipity.”

Collins is hoping that Aroostook County can become the first district in Maine to employ courthouse dogs to comfort children and victims of violent crimes throughout  the legal process. The goal is to abate the stress and psychological damage incurred as survivors and witnesses relive the traumatic events that brought them to court.

“The County (Commissioners) has approved a dog for our Caribou office,” he explained. “We still need to generate some policies and procedures, and it will be at least a year before the new dog is work ready. We are working with Purpose Pups in Houlton.”

Nephi has yet to attend a courtroom session as an official therapy dog. Instead, he is simply a volunteer, coming to work a couple of days each week with Eldredge, riding to the courthouse in Eldredge’s Mini-Cooper where he takes up the entire back seat.

“I have always done some type of advocacy work,” she said. “Nephi is the best partner I could have asked for. The idea of having a big, lovable dog makes a difficult situation much easier.”

“Valerie is amazingly dedicated,” Collins said. “She is an inspiration.”

Nephi has become somewhat of a celebrity around the District Courthouse in Houlton. Whenever she takes him for walks at lunchtime, Eldredge says they are often stopped by people asking if they can pet him or take a photo with him.

“Everywhere we go, people come up and talk to us,” she said. “He is so chill, he takes it all in stride.”