Duke, The First Oregon Department of Human Services Facility Dog Uses His Superpowers to Help People

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Duke, the first Oregon Department of Human Services (ODHS) Facility Dog, already knows what he is going to be for Halloween. Superman! Cape and all.

Danielle Santillii as Wonder Woman and Duke as Superman at a recent event.

It is so perfect that Duke is going to be Superman. After all, he does have superpowers. As an aside, Halloween is also Duke’s third birthday.

Duke is a 67-pound English Blond Labrador who has been trained by and belongs to Danielle Santilli, a Child Welfare Certifier. Duke’s superpowers are his awareness of when someone is experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, self-harming, major psychiatric issues, in need of medical assistance or just sadness. He’s been trained to recognize these issues. Duke’s work is a pilot project for ODHS.

When Duke recognizes these feelings in people, he leaps into action to interrupt the behavior or just to comfort them, softly nudging them so they recognize he is trying to help. Duke also is trained in Deep Pressure Therapy. He will gently tap someone’s leg if it’s OK for him to perform this therapy. This is when a dog will lay on your legs, in a chair or on the ground to help calm his human.

“Duke is the ultimate social worker and his superpower is to meet his humans where they are at emotionally,” Santilli said.  Duke, through Santilli is also an example of Building Well-being. Duke focuses on the whole well-being of people, families and community.

Duke works with Santilli at the Oregon City and the North Clackamas Child Welfare, Aging and People with Disabilities and Self-Sufficiency offices. Duke works with staff, clients, especially children and community partners. Duke has been integral in a recent death of an employee, helping the staff in their grief, and in Critical Incident Response Team meetings, helping staff in their trauma in the death of a child.

On a recent day Santilli was at her North Clackamas office desk and Theodore Truong, Social Services Specialist, stopped in to see Duke. He crouched down to pet Duke.

Theodore Truong stops in to visit with Duke.

“Duke is my favorite since day one,” he said. Duke just stood there looking into Truong’s eyes with his big brown dog eyes. He seemed to enjoy being petted and talked to.

Others in the office also seemed to brighten up as they hugged and petted Duke. Many face stressful situations in their everyday jobs.

“I love when Duke is here. He’s a comfort maker. He makes me smile,” Lindsey Sapriken, a Child Welfare Certifier said.

Thu To, also a Certifier said, “Duke is very reliable. We often come in with stuff from our jobs. And Duke is always happy.”

Santilli said Duke helped a child who had run away from his resource home The child was extremely emotionally upset.

From left, Lindsey Sapriken and Thu To get comforted from Duke.

“Duke had no hesitation to engage. He snuggled right into the child,” Santilli said.  

Duke also joins in on family visits to help each member if needed. There was a situation when a parent did not attend a visit with their child, who was in resource care. The child was very angry.

“I asked him if he liked dogs. He said, ‘Yeah, so Duke and I just sat there and talked with the child for about 25 minutes. Having Duke there took him away from what was going on,” Santilli said.

She hopes that other offices could also have a Facility Dog to help their staff, clients and community partners for better well-being.

Seth Lyon, District 15, Clackamas County District Manager, Child Welfare, Self-Sufficiency programs has been supportive of Duke’s work. He said, “I want to be open to new ideas that come from staff and see if we can get to “yes” if it aligns with our future direction, even if it isn’t the way we usually do business. Danielle has done the work. Duke has overwhelmingly had a positive impact. Having Duke in the office is also strongly connected to how we build well-being.”

Santillia knows it would take a lifetime commitment from each dog owner, two years of training, the cost of the dog – and most importantly – the perfect dog, like Duke.

The ODHS Office of Health Safety and Well-being is studying the Duke pilot project to see if it could be rolled out to other offices.

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Duke’s likes

  • Being petted
  • His yellow, stuffed animal duck
  • Football and baseball
  • His best friend, Daisy the Bernese Mountain Dog
  • Food (He’s a Labrador)
  • Walks at noon with his Dog Mom and trainer Danielle
  • Helping people

Duke’s dislikes

  • Strenuous exercise
  • Water, especially having to swim in it.

Duke data

  • In June, July and August Duke interacted with 1,335 human beings.
  • Duke is two years old and weighs 67 pounds.
  • Duke’s birthday is October 31.
  • Duke cost $10,000, which Santilli is paying mostly through donations.
  • Duke was born in Poland and has a Polish Passport.

Duke’s social media

About Author

Christine Decker is a Public Affairs Specialist for the Oregon Department of Human Services. Before working in communications she was a working journalist.

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