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Amy Johnson Nov 18, 2009

Making Paws-itive Changes in Incarcerated Youth

Those of us who work within the realm of animal assisted therapy often see the effects that an animal can make on a struggling client, patient, student or resident. Animal assisted therapy makes an exceptional adjunct to traditional modes of therapy…even for some of the most challening cases. Angela Sabin Veek, started PAWSitive Changes when she was staff at a youth corrections facility in Oregon. PAWSitive Changes strives to reach youth and dogs in need by pairing incarcerated youth with shelter dogs for the benefit of both. The idea to start the program began she asked the question, “How can you make a youth care about something when they have nothing to lose?”

Many of the youth with whom she worked had no family support, had sentences that included the possibility of incarceration until the age of 25, felt alienated from society and had few to no pro-social community ties. What in the world would they have left to care about? One resident, we’ll call Dan, in particular showed her. He was seven years in to a ten year sentence. He missed every teenage milestone, every family event and lost touch with just about every childhood friend because of the choices that he made.

Facing the same daily routine of attending school, treatment, meals, recreation and receiving medication, there wasn't much else to look forward to within those cold, hard, cement walls. Some members of society have asked why they should care. ..believing he made the choices that ultimately led to his incarceration. But thankfully, Angi didn’t feel that way. She picked this Dan as the first of three who would pilot her new animal interaction program. The pairing of incarcerated youth with shelter dogs to teach pro social skills wasn't a new idea, but it was one that held serious potential. If she could somehow teach youth to care about someone…or something… could empathy and compassion be further developed? Could this provide opportunities for reformation within the family? She believed that it could.

To work with Dan, Angi picked up a squirrely puppy from the animal shelter that the staff indicated would never be adopted due to her "bad" behaviors and dominance traits. Her name was Mango. When Angi asked Dan’s parents to sign the Release of Responsibility paperwork, his father's eyes glazed over with amazement and emotion. He said that Mango was the nickname that he gave his son when he was a child and was shocked that the first dog his son would be assigned to work with, would be Mango.

The first day that Mango entered the correctional facility, there was a lot of excitement… and a lot to learn. Dan was proud of her and happy to, in his words, "have something to care about." He told Angi that when Mango was there, he couldn’t stop “smiling from ear to ear" and always looked forward to working with her again. Angi saw first-hand how the bond between a youth with almost nothing, and a dog with no hope, was a powerful tool for change. His behavior began to evolve. Staff observed that he was more helpful, more motivated and overall, seemed to be a "nicer" person in the unit. He began to excel in his program and other youth looked up to him. Should we thank Mango? Angi…and Dan...say yes.

Dan’s family adopted Mango, who became a substitute child until he could come home. He was able to visit Mango on holidays and special occasions until he ultimately earned his release. The family continues to send pictures and stories of Mango's first Christmas, her trips to San Francisco and even the sprinkler system that she chewed in the backyard. Angi feels that somehow, Mango helped define the family and made it more tolerable for them over the years to deal with all the pain and allow them to feel pride for their son’s accomplishments, rather than just any possible shame over his incarceration. Angi would go as far as saying that Mango helped them all care about something. Please feel free to share your stories for upcoming blogs! I look forward to hearing from you.

Amy Johnson is a counselor, lecturer, founder, and program director of the non-profit organization, Teacher's Pet: Dogs and Kids Learning Together.

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