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Canine comfort: Inmates and shelter pets find strength in each other at Washington County

Inmates and employees at the Washington County jail will be visited by animals from Home for Life twice a month as part of an effort to decrease stress. Photo courtesy of Washington County Sheriff's Office1 / 6
Cpl. Amy Bolen pets the dog Nabi from the Home for Life rescue. Photo courtesy of Washington County Sheriff's Office 2 / 6
Rocket, a therapy dog from Home for Life, gets some love from 911 Communications Supervisor Jenny Bruner Aug. 17. Photo courtesy of Washington County Sheriff's Office 3 / 6
Dispatchers Breanna Dexter and Jean Nousiainen take a break to meet one of the therapy dogs from Home for Life, which will visit the jail twice a month. Photo courtesy of Washington County Sheriff's Office 4 / 6
Correctional officers Georgene Wakefield and Becky Dyck get a visit from one of Home for Life's therapy dogs. Photo courtesy of Washington County Sheriff's Office 5 / 6
A Home for Life therapy dog and inmates at the Washington County Jail enjoyed each other's company Aug. 17. Photo courtesy of Washington County Sheriff's Office 6 / 6

Two dogs were admitted to the Washington County jail Aug. 17.

Rocket and Nabi, a 20-pound version of a chocolate lab and a fluffy white cotton ball of a dog, were the first two "Peace Creatures" brought into the jail as part of a new therapy dog program. Washington County Sheriff Dan Starry said he wanted to find a way to brighten the spirits at the jail, and reached out to the Home for Life animal shelter in Star Prairie, Wis.

"I think it's really important to us to make sure we take care of our employees, but also our inmates," he said. "For the most part they're community members and they'll be back living in the community within a short period of time."

Home for Life houses dozens of dogs and cats — as well as the odd turtle or cockatoo — that are difficult to find homes for and would likely end up euthanized. Many of their resident pets also become trained therapy animals, just like Rocket and Nabi, and visit people in care centers, children at the University of Minnesota hospital and the VA Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center, Executive Director Lisa LaVerdiere said.

Starry and LaVerdiere both had nothing but positive reactions to the first visit, and are looking forward to the second visit Sept. 6. They plan to schedule visits every two weeks.

Starry said he could tell right away it was a success.

"The animals had that quality about them that could make anyone melt," he said.

Home for Life animals and volunteers have never done jail visits before. For many years they visited the Boys Totem Town juvenile detention center, but it has been several years since then.

Starry said they had to reach out to a service that would be willing to come to a jail, which he expected to be challenging.

LaVerdiere said they were a bit nervous at first visit, but any concerns they had dissipated once they were inside.

"(It) didn't feel like there was anything menacing ... the energy was very positive and receptive," she said. "They wanted to hold (the dogs) and pet them, and we let them."

A visits from a dog is different from other programs, because as LaVerdiere said, the "problems that divide" all disappear.

"A lot of these people ... had made some decisions that weren't the best, but ... animals don't judge, don't care if they're in an orange jumpsuit," she said. "They just look past that."

Starry made sure the program benefited both the inmates and employees at the jail, whose jobs can oftentimes be tough.

"In a stressful job; it's nice to have the break to be able to see the animals," LaVerdiere said. "It soothes everybody and brings a smile to their face."

Trips like this can also be therapeutic for the dogs, who have each had their own share of trouble or abuse. Rocket and Nabi both have disabilities — epilepsy and a nervous tic caused by complications of distemper — that at another shelter could have caused them to be put down.

The volunteers with the dogs and the deputies taking them through the facility tried to make sure everyone who wanted contact with the two had the chance. There are over 250 employees there and usually over 200 inmates at a given time.

Which means, LaVerdiere said, Nabi and Rocket "had all the love they could handle."

As they forge ahead with the program, she said they will continue to see what works best. They will bring in new dogs to see which respond best to the environment. LaVerdiere said for the next visit they are considering Venus, a German Shepard from Iran whose ears were cut off, a big St. Bernard named Finnegan, or one of their dogs aided by a wheelchair.

The program is at no cost to the Washington County jail. Home for Life is a non-profit funded by donations and grants.

The county jail also continues to have a women's writing program, as well as a program to help communication between inmates and their children.

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