Therapy dogs bring comfort to troubled youth
Canine companions visit Linn County Juvenile Detention Center each month
CEDAR RAPIDS — The Linn County Juvenile Detention Center has enlisted a new breed of counselors to help young people — specifically a Leonberger, a Labrador retriever and a golden retriever.
The certified therapy dogs take a trip to the detention center, 800 Walford Road in Cedar Rapids, the third Tuesday of each month to interact with the youth, ages 12 to 18, who are being housed at the facility.
At the beginning of each visit, the owners introduce their dogs to two groups, tell them about the breed and share stories about other therapy sessions in which the dogs have participated. This month, Kate Hladky was accompanied by Juma, a 4-year-old Leonberger, a German breed resembling a lion with great tufts of brown and black hair and a large body frame. Sue Anton-Owen brought Wilson, a high-energy, 6-year-old golden retriever and Roy Gaddis introduced the youth to Sophie, a 7-year-old yellow Labrador retriever.
The detainees took turns petting the dogs, who all have completed a series of certification tests to ensure they don’t get alarmed by loud noises or beeping — which are frequent in hospitals or detention centers — and won’t show aggression if someone tugs on their fur or plays a bit rough with them.
In short, they are trained to remain calm no matter the circumstances.
After seeing how relaxed her “students” are after interacting with the dogs, Marcia Booth, an off-site teacher for the Grant Wood Area Education Agency who works with the young people at the detention center, said she would like to see the three-year-old program continue.
The Linn County Juvenile Detention Center offers other programs, such as yoga and a day each month when students can read to Wilson — the golden retriever — in order to practice their fluency with a creature who won’t judge a misstep in pronunciation.
Booth said the therapy dog sessions are popular among her students. She said the dogs have an intuition, and they target the students who need the most interaction.
“If they sense something we don’t see with our kids, they try to get them to interact with them,” Booth said. “Sometimes they’ll put a paw on a kid or sometimes snuggle them, and really say to them, ‘Pet me. You need me.’ Today ... Wilson had his eye on one of our students. When that student got around to his turn, you could tell he was trying to connect with him, and it really helped that student.”
The therapy dogs’ ability to connect with those most in need also is obvious to Hladky. While introducing Sophie — the yellow Lab — and Juma — the Leonberger — Gaddis said an 18-year-old male — who is not named per the detention center’s request — locked eyes with Juma until the dog began to groan and tried walking over to the teen.
When it was his turn, the young man was hesitant to pet Juma, who weighs in at 130 pounds. To make him more comfortable, Hladky showed the teen pictures of Juma as a puppy, comparing the pup to the size of a loaf of bread. Eventually, the young man began to pet the dog.
“I really have to give credit to these people,” Booth said of the therapy dog owners. “A lot of times, there’s ... one student that doesn’t like to participate or is scared. They talk to the kids about (the dogs) and what they have at home ... if they have a pet. Usually, by the end of the period, they’ve pet at least one dog.”
There are some young people who don’t need convincing.
A 15-year-old female student, who said she has been to the center for two or three stays, has participated in the therapy dog program four or five times. She said it reminds her of the pit bull she used to have named Royal. During introductions this month, the teen could barely sit still.
“I love animals, and I feel like when we’re in here and when the dogs come, we have a connection to the outside world,” she said. “Dogs make me feel like there’s something to be happy for.”
The teen said the dogs help to keep her on track and remind her that there is someone willing to connect with her, even if it’s through a slobbery lick.
“This morning, I woke up and I was not happy because of stuff with my mom,” she said. “Then they told me the dogs were coming and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ They help me forget about stuff and think stuff can be good sometimes.
“I know I get in trouble, but when the dogs come and when they leave, I feel like my day will go much better than it would have before.”