By RACHEL SAWICKI, Delaware State News
NEW CASTLE, Del. (AP) – For residents of Baylor Correctional Facility for Women, substance abuse counseling, life skills classes and group talk therapy are nothing compared to seeing Stella, a cattle dog Aussie and a pit bull mix in the Brandywine Valley SPCA pet. Paws for Change assisted therapy program.
Many residents are on a long road to recovery from substance abuse disorders and mental illness. Visits from dogs like Stella are often the highlight of their week, a light at the end of the tunnel and motivation for women to return home with their own furry friends.
The stress and tension on each resident’s face visibly dissipated with each kiss from Stella. One resident, Ashley, always gives up her outdoor recreation time to stay indoors and see the visiting animals.
“They help you through your tough times because we don’t see the outside like that,” Ashley said. “It gives us joy and hope.”
Fellow resident and friend Kimberly is sentenced to about a year, but said pet therapy helps pass the time.
“You don’t realize what you’re missing until you’re here,” Kimberly said. “You can’t pet your pets from home. I have three kitties waiting for me and I grew up with miniature dachshunds so it’s a joy to see animals here.”
The Department of Corrections became involved in pet therapy after a riot at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in 2017, according to Rachel Boulden, treatment administrator at Baylor Correctional Facility for Women.
She said they originally brought in therapy animals to support the officers involved in the riot, but later realized that animal therapy with inmates from several different correctional centers could also yield positive results.
Research on similar programs has shown reduced incidents of violence and stress and increased therapeutic engagement, Ms Boulden said.
“Maybe we could reduce the violence a little bit, reduce the stress a little bit, give the women some sort of outlet for their therapeutic needs, and that’s been great,” she said. “We have worked with several different suppliers, but we are currently in partnership with the Brandywine Valley SPCA.”
Rachel Golub, director of programs at BVSPCA, said the program has created a nurturing cycle, where the community helps the residents and the residents help the community.
“People come to shelters and they see animals and they’re happy, but to see someone have a complete emotional breakthrough is amazing,” she said. “And then it’s amazing for the animals too, because most of our animals that participate have been adopted from our shelters, so we can see them giving back to the communities that rescued or rescued them.”
Mrs. Golub is working on adding a variety of animals to the program, including cats, rabbits and chickens.
“Some people just have preferences for other animals and it brings back positive memories,” she said. “A resident told me that she was not comfortable with dogs, but that she would be really happy if one day we brought a reptile. I happen to have a bearded dragon, so we got permission and brought him in. Beardy has sort of become the mascot here.
Stella is one of 13 dogs in the animal-assisted therapy program, but Ms Golub said Stella was a special star among them – a true Brandywine ambassador. Her owner, Jessie Tharp, said she never imagined being part of a prison therapy program when she adopted Stella, but her gentle disposition made her the perfect therapy dog.
“Residents will open up or talk about their own pet, or just enjoy Stella’s affection,” Ms Tharp said. “It’s probably a good break for the residents. Everyone is at a different stage in life and if you can help them or be considerate of others’ situations, I think it can be a positive learning experience.
The dogs go through an eight-week training program before they are ready to meet the inmates. The first two weeks are at the shelter, where the dogs learn basic obedience. Then they go out with their handlers to train in the community and become familiar with the loud noises, unfamiliar surroundings, and many interactions with strangers. Ms Boulden noted, however, that dog handlers also undergo training.
“(Residents) talk about a lot of traumatic things, so the volunteers are also trained and prepared because they hear a lot of things that they’re probably not used to hearing,” she said. “So they don’t just sit and hold the animal, they are also asked to engage and participate. It helps create that connection between the residents here and the community outside.”
Ms. Boulden recalled several moving moments when residents opened up in the presence of an animal. Animals are “free from judgment,” she said, only there to give and receive love, which often facilitates successful therapy.
“They’ll sit on the floor holding the dog and say, ‘I hate to talk about this’ or ‘I don’t want to admit it’, but they’ll start talking to the dog and sharing, and just walk out,” said said Ms. Boulden “Some of the women will break down and the dog will lick their tears away, and it’s just amazing to see the effects of pet therapy.”
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