There’s something about the loving gaze and sweet disposition of a pet that, for so many, not only lights up a room but can also make a bad day better. In fact, research has shown clear health benefits to having pets: Doting on animals may actually lower blood pressure, ease depression and feelings of loneliness, and reduce stress.
Multnomah County’s Juvenile Services Division is harnessing that concept by partnering with DoveLewis Portland Area Canine Therapy Teams to bring therapy dogs to the Donald E. Long Detention Center in Northeast Portland.
Therapy dogs are a step beyond everyday pets: They are expertly trained dogs with thousands of hours of training in crisis response, court victim support, psychological first aid, and self-care, allowing them to assist in a variety of environments and situations. The Canine Therapy Teams visit schools, courtrooms, hospitals, care centers and scenes of crisis every year. Their work has now expanded to include the County’s Donald E. Long Detention Facility, a youth detention center run by the Multnomah County Department of Community Justice.
There, youth are often supported through a variety of programs, including spiritual support, healthcare services, peer support groups, recreation, library services and education. But every three weeks for at least 45 minutes, two black Labrador Retrievers named Dolly and Sandy have been added to the repertoire to serve as a source of comfort for both staff and youth within the detention center.
“These dogs are pretty empathetic,” said Kathy Brunk, handler and member of DoveLewis Portland Area Canine Therapy Teams. “They know which individual needs the most care. And Sandy will definitely target somebody and stay with them the whole time.”
“Putting some smiles on these kids’ faces and taking the stress off,” said Denise Duncan handler and member of Portland Area Canine Therapy Teams. “They love the interaction, they love the touch with these dogs. We really notice that, we really notice it. It feels good.”
The visits are part of overall efforts to create a more trauma-informed, developmentally appropriate environment for youth, including renovations to the physical environment at the detention center and incorporating more restorative practices and support for pro-social and positive change.
“Some of these kids have gone through situations in their life that a lot of us are lucky enough to not even fathom what that could involve,” said Adreanna Torralba a Multnomah County Juvenile Custody Services Specialist charged with general care of youth in the facility.
“These kids are going through traumatic events that affect their behavior and impact their success in life and so when we’re addressing those traumas and rehabilitating the children, they’re more likely to be successful when they leave us.”
“The past facility that I worked for 4 ½ years, the therapist had service animals and the unit had service animals,” said Jersey Rodriguez, also a Juvenile Custody Services Specialist with the Division.
“It created grounding for our youth because in situations where they were experiencing crisis, the youth would always request one of our service animals. In that moment when they couldn’t connect with a person they were always able to connect with the animal because this animal passes no judgment. They’re there to console you and be there to help you regulate and that was really phenomenal to watch and be a part of.”