URBANA — A recent addition to the Champaign County government staff is breathing life into an office that deals with death.
Harlow, a 2-year-old purebred golden retriever, has been coming to work with her owner, Champaign County Coroner Duane Northrup, for about a month.
“We had the mother of an infant (who died) come in and she was crying. I was talking to her and she was upset. I asked her if it was OK to have the office dog come out to meet her,” Northrup said.
“I hollered down the hall and whistled for her. (Harlow) went right up to the woman, put her head in her lap and she stopped crying. It got her to calm down a little so she was able to discuss her case.”
On that day, Harlow met her primary job goal as a therapy dog: providing comfort.
Harlow is not officially a county employee. She belongs to Northrup and his wife of 24 years, Christine, whose idea it was originally to have the family’s pet train as a therapy dog.
When their last dog was nearing the end of its life, Duane and Christine knew they wanted a replacement. Their oldest daughter located Harlow from a breeder near Springfield, Mo.
They got Harlow when she was about 12 weeks old and she cohabited for about three months with the family’s 13-year-old dog before it died.
Both Northrups went through the necessary training to have Harlow certified as a “canine good citizen,” then continued training to have her certified as a therapy dog and themselves certified as handlers. That took about three months.
The training included going into public places to see how Harlow reacted to crowds.
“We had her at a Carle cancer survivor retreat at a local church about a month ago. That was our first public thing to do with her,” Northrup said. “She did great. Everybody loved her.”
Christine Northrup, who is employed as director of special education for the Mahomet-Seymour school district, had already been thinking about training a dog for use in the schools for a crisis like a student death or during exam time to relieve student anxiety.
Since getting Harlow, they have added another member to their household.
Hadley, a 5-month-old golden retriever, is now in training with Christine in hopes that she can be ready to work in the schools by next school year. Duane Northrup said he will also be certified to handle Hadley.
The couple felt Harlow would be a good fit for the coroner’s office, where she goes most days unless Northrup needs to be at meetings off-site for long stretches.
“It’s been nice having her here. All dogs owners hate when they have to leave home every morning. The nice thing is she’s here with me. She’s laying on her bed. When we need her, we holler for her and she comes and does what she needs to do,” he said.
Were she at home alone, she’d just be sleeping, Northrup said.
He limits where Harlow can go in the office. She doesn’t go in the autopsy suite, for example.
“She’s done really well in our office, not only for the public but for the staff. When they’ve had a tough case, they’ll hug her and she can relieve part of the stress,” he said.
Deputy Coroner Sara Rand can attest to that.
“We just see a lot of negative emotions — a lot of grief, anger, commotion. Harlow is very calm and comforting,” she said. “She just provides a little bit of something for us to unwind when we get back to the office.”
Rand said just the sound of Harlow’s jingling tags can lift her mood.
“As deputies, we provide informal grief counseling for families and are a grounding force. We let them unload on us,” Rand said. “Harlow reciprocates that for us. When we come back from a difficult scene ... Harlow absorbs that from us. I imagine Harlow can sense what we need.”