Four-legged visitors make big hit at local jail in start of new program

Huntington County Jail inmate Mary Whited (right) pets Bailey, a schnauzer owned by Donna Norwood (left), during a pet therapy visit to the jail Thursday, Nov. 17. Four dogs and their owners, members of the Three Rivers Visiting Dogs Huntington Team, visited each cell block at the jail, letting their canines interact with the inmates.
Huntington County Jail inmate Mary Whited (right) pets Bailey, a schnauzer owned by Donna Norwood (left), during a pet therapy visit to the jail Thursday, Nov. 17. Four dogs and their owners, members of the Three Rivers Visiting Dogs Huntington Team, visited each cell block at the jail, letting their canines interact with the inmates. Photo by Rebecca Sandlin

Originally published Nov. 21, 2016.

Not less than a few inmates at the Huntington County Jail woke up Thursday morning, Nov. 17, to find a greeting from a four-footed, furry ambassador. And in each of the jail’s men’s and women’s cell blocks, there was not a frown to be found.

Many were just stumbling out of bed as members of the Three Rivers Visiting Dogs came calling, with big toothy doggy grins and tails a-wagging. Others stared from behind the barred windows of their individual cell doors to view the commotion going on in the common area. It was the first day for the new program to let inmates interact with dogs, whose sole mission is to love and be loved.

Four dogs – a collie, boxer, miniature schnauzer and a golden retriever, were accompanied by their owners, who introduced them to the inmates. The dogs are veterans, members of a group that makes 1,300 visits yearly to hospitals, nursing homes, schools, libraries, Pathfinder Services and even funeral and church services. Their calm, tolerant, friendly and polite temperaments make them perfect for therapy dogs. But this was the first time they’d been in jail.

It made no difference whatsoever.

“A dog doesn’t judge,” said Donna Norwood, of Huntington, as her schnauzer, Bailey, nuzzled her incarcerated admirers. “So many of them have dogs at home. You can tell they really miss them. It just gives them a lot of pleasure to be able to pet a dog and talk to them a little bit.”

The dog therapy program at the jail began when Jail Commander Jeff Kyle saw a program on TV about dogs that visited hospitals. He called Parkview to see if there was anything like that in Huntington County and was introduced to Sharon Laupp, the leader of the Huntington County team of Three Rivers Visiting Dogs, which, based in Fort Wayne, has 106 members and their dogs.

“With the upcoming winter season, our inmates are going to be stuck inside until springtime, because in their ‘rec’ time they just can’t get out and get any fresh air and do anything,” Kyle explains. “I was looking for something that might give them a little bit of happiness. …

“When you’re incarcerated, and you’re inside a cell block and inside your cell 24/7, just to maybe see a smile on their faces back there. Some of them might have been incarcerated for over a year and they have had no opportunity to relate to a dog, or any kind of animal. I just hope this brings them 15 minutes of happiness when they’re inside the cell blocks, especially with the holidays coming up.”

The inmates crowded around to get a chance to pat, rub, or just downright hug the furry visitors. Often comments could be heard as the inmates talked to them, such as, “My dog would be so jealous,” or “My grandma used to have a dog just like you.”

“I like my dogs more than I do most people,” said inmate Chad Dolby, who has two pit bulls at home. “I miss mine. I appreciate them coming out. It really relieves some stress.”

Mary Whited, who is incarcerated on the women’s block, was excited to near tears as she reached to pet Patches, a friendly collie belonging to Laupp.

“I love animals. They’re just so sweet and cuddly,” she says. “I have to be in here for a whole year, so it’s just kind of a breath of fresh air.”

Proven benefits of interaction with therapy dogs are multiple, including reduced blood pressure and heart and respiration rates. The dog’s visit can also make a person feel less stressed and depressed, continuing after the visit has ended. Sharon Ernst’s dog, Daisy, is a certified hug magnet, often laying down to allow for belly rubs from those she visits.

“With her (Daisy), she just goes up to anyone. They just enjoy the hugging and the petting,” Ernst says. “I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for the people here.”

Even the jail’s staff couldn’t suppress their smiles, as the joy of the moment was palpably felt as the canines visited each cell block. Chief Deputy Chris Newton suggested that each block should have its own pet.

“With having so many people in our jail right now, you’ve seen a smile on every single one of our inmates’ faces as soon as that dog breached that doorway,” he says. “Almost everybody loves the love and compassion of a dog … It’s an automatic de-stressor. As soon as these dogs walk into these cell blocks and see these guys, who are here doing their time, and they’re doing a great job in here, but to see the dogs come in and letting these guys put a smile on their face, it’s an automatic de-stressor.”

Newton says the dogs’ presence also act as a de-escalator to any possible problems that might come to a head among those behind bars.

“Because it gets frustrating in here sometimes. When you put a bunch of people in a block that confines them to one location, not everybody gets along. So to find something like that you can bring in, and put a smile on somebody’s face and de-escalate a problem before there’s a problem, what a great thing,” he says. “It’s so wonderful that these folks have given up their day to come in here and do this. Almost everybody loves a dog.”

The rewards that the dogs’ owners have are also mutual, even though they pretty much hold the leash and stand by while their charge does all the “work.” Several of the TRVD members have seen changes and improvements in those they visit that nothing else was able to elicit.

“It’s just a comfort, somehow to be able to give them some joy,” says Norwood. “They’re nice guys, and the women, too. It’s a pleasure just to be able to come and visit.”