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What a difference a dog makes

On a recent afternoon, Corrections Officer John Hassen and the unit chiefs at Woodland Center Correctional Facility made a trip to the facility’s infirmary accompanied by one of their newest treatment partners. Flanked by prisoner handlers, Sadie, the facility’s resident therapy dog, visited inmate bedsides as part of her daily rounds. It’s here where she does her best work, staff said. Faces softened. Eyes lighted with excitement as prisoners patted her head when she appeared next to them. It was clear that even the brief visit left a noticeable impact on inmates in the room. That same impact is evident at all corners of the facility, and staff said her presence has had a positive influence on prisoners since she arrived in February. Bringing Sadie on Board In late 2016, Warden Jodi DeAngelo gave Hassen the task to coordinate a therapy dog program at the facility, which houses the state’s most severely mentally ill inmates. The goal was to help bring stability, comfort and a sense of calm to prisoners struggling with mental illness. Hassen knew where he could start. He reached out to Thumb Correctional Facility, which works with an organization called Stiggy’s Dogs to train animals to help individuals with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Hassen connected with the founder of Stiggy’s, who identified a Shiba Inu-mix puppy to be trained as a therapy dog for Woodland Center Correctional Facility’s prisoners. The less than year-old dog had been selected from the rescue organization Friends for Animals of Metro Detroit. Hassen said he visited Thumb Correctional Facility monthly for the six months Sadie was in training with prisoners there to check in on her progress. When her training was complete, her prisoner handlers at Thumb wrote letters about her personality, likes and dislikes to help make her transition to Woodland go smoothly. When she arrived on February 1, she was given time to adjust to her new surroundings and her new prisoner handlers at Woodland. With the assistance of staff from Stiggy’s, Hassen and Sadie’s prisoner handlers at Woodland completed their own training program on how to work with Sadie while meeting the needs of prisoners at the facility. They developed a routine – spending the mornings setting goals and objectives for the day and helping the young dog burn off some puppy energy through play. Two weeks later, she was ready for her first day of work. Responding to a Need At first, Hassen worried about how the prisoner population might react to Sadie. Many had not seen and had not been exposed to a dog in years. But she was immediately a hit, he said. “It has been the best ever,” Hassen said. Many infirmed prisoners responded positively and actively engaged with Sadie, including some that had previously avoided interacting with others, DeAngelo said. One prisoner cried tears of joy after having the opportunity to visit with Sadie, Hassen said. Another, who had not spoken to staff in years, began asking for visits with her. DeAngelo said interactions with Sadie have proven to be greatly beneficial to prisoners at Woodland who have been diagnosed with challenging medical and psychiatric disorders. Since Sadie arrived, prisoner behavior, emotional well-being and hygiene has improved, along with interactions with staff. Prisoners are also more interested in reaching their therapeutic goals, she said. “We have been amazed at the noticeable difference that Sadie has made in such a short time,” DeAngelo said. Staff know that Sadie’s uplifting presence will change the atmosphere of a housing unit for the better after she visits, Hassen said. Many prisoners now look forward to their voluntary therapy sessions with Sadie. Those sessions often take place in the facility’s gymnasium, where Sadie spends time interacting and playing with each prisoner. Her unconditional affection helps change prisoner attitudes, said Zuri McGarrity, a unit chief at the facility. “We see a big difference,” McGarrity said. Her arrival at the facility resulted in so many positive changes in prisoner behavior that on more than one occasion, staff lightheartedly nominated her as employee of the month. She, after all, has her own facility ID card. But Sadie’s success at the facility wouldn’t be possible without the support and assistance of staff at Woodland and across the community, Hassen said. Sadie and the therapy dog program at Woodland is supported by the Prisoner Benefit Fund and donations, many coming from staff at the facility. A local Girl Scouts troop also donated toys for Sadie. With the support of staff and the community, the facility has seen improvements in prisoner behavior and attitudes through interactions with Sadie. “She has truly brought joy to all around her,” DeAngelo said. “What a difference a dog makes.”