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By RACHEL SAWICKI, Delaware State News

NEW CASTLE, Del. (AP) — For residents at Baylor Women’s Correctional Institution, substance abuse counseling, life skills classes and group talk-therapy is nothing compared to seeing Stella, an Australian cattle dog and pitbull mix in the Brandywine Valley SPCA animal-assisted therapy program Paws for Exchange.

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 the women to get back home to their own furry friends.

The stress and tension in each resident’s face visibly dissipated with every kiss from Stella. One resident, Ashley, always gives up her outdoor recreation time to stay inside and see the animal visitors.

“They help you through your hard times because we don’t get to see the outside like that,” Ashley said. “It gives us joy and hope.”

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Fellow resident and friend Kimberly has about a year-long sentence, but said the animal therapy makes the time fly.

“You don’t realize what you miss until you’re in here,” Kimberly said. “You can’t pet your animals from home. I have three kitty cats waiting for me, and I grew up with miniature Dachshunds, so it’s a joy to see animals here.”

The Department of Corrections got involved with animal therapy after a riot at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in 2017, according to Rachel Boulden, treatment administrator at Baylor Women’s Correctional Institution.

She said they originally brought in therapy animals to support the officers who were involved in the riot, but later realized animal therapy with the inmates in several different correctional centers could reap positive results, too.

Research on similar programs showed reduced incidents of violence and stress and an increase in therapy engagement, Ms. Boulden said.

“Maybe we could reduce a little bit of violence, reduce a little bit of stress, give the women some kind of outlet to their therapeutic needs, and it’s been great,” she said. “We’ve worked with a couple of different providers but we’re currently partnered with the Brandywine Valley SPCA.”

Rachel Golub, director of programs at BVSPCA, said the program has created a rewarding cycle, where the community is helping residents and residents are helping the community.

“People come to the shelters and they see animals and they’re happy, but to see someone fully have an emotional breakthrough is amazing,” she said. “And then it’s amazing for the animals, too, because most of our animals that are participating were adopted from our shelters, so we get to see them give back to the communities that rescued or saved them.”

Ms. 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 triggers some memories for them that were positive,” she said. “One resident told me she wasn’t comfortable with dogs, but would be really happy if we ever brought in a reptile. I just so happen to have a bearded dragon, so we got permission and brought him in. Beardy has kind of become the mascot here.”

Stella is one of 13 dogs in the animal-assisted therapy program, but Ms. Golub said Stella is a particular star amongst them — a true Brandywine ambassador. Her owner, Jessie Tharp, said she never imagined being in a prison therapy program when she adopted Stella, but her sweet disposition made her the perfect therapy dog.

“The residents will open up or talk about their own pet, or just enjoy the affection from Stella,” Ms. Tharp said. “It’s probably a good break for the residents. Everyone is in a different spot in life and if you can help them or be considerate of other people’s situations, I think that can be a positive learning experience.”

The dogs go through an eight-week training program before they are ready to meet with inmates. The first two weeks take place at the shelter, where dogs are taught basic obedience. Then, they go out with their handlers to practice in the community and get comfortable with loud noises, unfamiliar environments and lots of interaction with strangers. Ms. Boulden noted, however, that the handlers go through training as well.

“(Residents) talk about a lot of traumatic things, so the volunteers are also trained and prepped because they’re hearing a lot of things that they’re probably not used to hearing,” she said. “So they don’t just sit there and hold the animal, they’re also asked to engage and chime in. It helps build that bond between the residents here and the outside community.”

Ms. Boulden recalled several moving moments when residents opened up in the presence of an animal. Animals are “free of judgment,” she said, only there to give and receive love, which often makes it easier to find success in therapy.

“They’ll sit on the ground holding the dog and say, ‘I hate talking about this’ or ‘I don’t want to admit this,’ but they’ll start talking to the dog and start sharing, and it all just comes out,” Ms. Boulden said. “Some of the women will break down and the dog is licking their tears, and it’s just amazing to see the effects of animal therapy.”

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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