Rebecca Baer of Delaware Public Media reports on the Paws for Change program at Baylor Correctional Facility
The level of excitement at Baylor Correctional Facility increases every time Stella enters a room. He is a 3 and a half year old brown and white spotted Australian Cattle Dog – Pitbull mix. And the inmates of this women’s prison eagerly await his visits.
“I couldn’t wait for her to come over just to play with her. It’s a whole lot of joy,” said Ashley, an inmate at the facility.
Ashley is one of dozens of inmates Stella and other pets visit as part of an animal-assisted therapy program called Paws for Change.
Another inmate, Kimberly, says it reminds her of the three cats she is expecting at home.
“It lifts my spirits because you don’t realize what you’re missing until you’re here and can pet your pets at home,” she said.
The program was launched last September after prison staff looked for new ways to expand their services.
“We did some research and said why not contact the organizations and see if anyone would like to bring in animal-assisted therapy teams; maybe we could reduce the violence a bit, reduce the stress, giving the women some sort of outlet for their therapeutic needs and that’s been great,” said the facility’s treatment administrator, Rachel Boulden.
The Brandywine Valley SPCA provides the animals who visit about twice a week and interact with dozens of inmates.
“People come to the shelter and see animals and they’re happy, but to see someone have an emotional breakthrough is amazing and it’s also amazing for the animals because most of our animals that attend have been adopted from our shelters. , so to see them in some way giving back to the communities that rescued or saved them is really huge for us,” said Rachel Golub, SPCA Program Director.
It’s also important to dog handlers, including Jessie Tharp who adopted Stella from the Brandywine Valley SPCA just over a year ago.
“Once we kind of hung out with her and realized how sweet and gentle she was all the time and saw how much she loved other people, we were like, ‘wow, she would be a very good therapy dog ”and then it just so happens that shortly after that Brandywine Valley started her program, so we signed her up and she passed all the training required,” Tharp said.
Golub says animal-assisted therapy requires a special animal and special training. Dogs like Stella are first assessed for their temperament and then, if deemed suitable for a therapy program, they begin a rigorous eight-week training program that Golub says is more intense than the course in training. typical PetSmart obedience.
“What they have to do best is build relationships with people,” she said. “That’s really what we’re looking for is that at the core of who they are, people are what’s most important and motivating, so it’s not toys, it’s not food is a connection with people.”
Stella passed the training with flying colors and Tharp says she didn’t hesitate to join Paws for Change.
“I think it was more than I had ever been in a correctional facility, so maybe a little nervous about that, but once I came the first time and met the staff and that Stella spent her first day here, there were really no qualms about it,” she said.
But not everyone likes dogs and that’s okay, says DOC’s Rachel Boulden.
“Some of the residents here are afraid of dogs and they’ll tell you ‘no thanks, I don’t want to be around the dog,'” she said.
She said some just had preferences for other animals. The SPCA’s Rachel Golub has already brought her own bearded dragon, called Beardy, and is considering including other animals.
“It’s interesting to hear the different things that people gravitate towards, so it’s not always just cats and dogs. It’s reptiles, fish, chickens, even rabbits – a lot of people have had rabbits as pets – and it’s nice to trigger positive memories for them and I feel like a lot of people latch onto them when they’re in a facility like this and so if we can help with that, I totally agree,” she said.
And while the program isn’t just for dogs, animal-assisted therapy isn’t just for correctional facilities either. The SPCA often brings animals to other facilities such as elementary schools and memory care units in senior centers.
“The coming of animals can sometimes wake up their memories, which is a really cool thing to watch,” Golub said.
And Baylor inmates and staff say the dogs are having a significant impact there, too. Before embarking on the program, Boulden researched the effectiveness of pet therapy. She said it showed a reduction in violence and an increase in inmates’ engagement with their therapists.
Inmates like Ashley say it promotes healing and peace in an environment that can often be chaotic and stressful.
“I think it helps mentally. You go through a lot here – a lot of change and… getting help for addiction and it just gives us hope, comfort, some hope from the people. animals,” she said.
For more information about the program, visit https://bvspca.org/pawsforchange/