Every Friday, Burlingame resident Bruce Thompson throws a black leash around the neck of his 7-year-old German shepherd named Sadie and the duo hit the road.
But they’re not heading to the dog park, instead they are heading to the Maple Street Correctional Facility in Redwood City where they volunteer in a new pet assisted therapy program designed to ease the tension for some of its inmates with mental illnesses.
Since June, two specially trained dogs, Molly, a labrador, and Sadie alternate turns visiting the women in a group setting with each of the inmates enjoying special one-on-one time with the dog.
The program is a partnership between the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office and the Peninsula Humane Society/SPCA and is designed to assist the inmates by learning coping and social skills and reduce stress, anxiety and depression, according to Detective Salvador Zuno, spokesman with the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office.
“The program has really helped these inmates,” said Zuno. “They are interacting with a non-judgmental, warm and friendly dog and it seems to reduce their overall stress, anxiety and (help their) well-being.”
Studies show that animal-human companionship can be extremely beneficial in healing and helping to increase a person’s happiness, according to Marivic Dizon, pet assisted therapy coordinator with the PHS. Whether the inmates walk with the dog, pet the dog or just sit with the dog, the animals are providing these women with a unique bonding experience, she said.
“This is a really positive experience for inmates and helps in their journey of getting rehabilitated,” Dizon said.
Handlers and pets are trained through classes at the PHS. The animals are not all dogs — PHS has one pig, a cat and even a tortoise. The animals take classes that include tugging, pulling and other behavioral tests that prove they are capable of handling a variety of situations, according to Dizon.
Thompson, a 40-year-resident of Burlingame and retired longtime educator, most recently as superintendent of the Woodside Elementary School District, said he loves his work in pet therapy and spends his time with Sadie also in the Maguire Correctional Facility in Redwood City and in the San Francisco Jail in San Bruno.
While he says he loves the idea of giving back and hopes to better the human condition by volunteering, Thompson said he sees that Sadie values the time too.
“She is so excited to get out of the car and her tail is wagging and she is very easy-going with everyone,” Thompson said.
His sixth German shepherd, Sadie was rescued in Bakersfield in late March of 2012. Thompson adopted her two weeks later. Sadie has undergone several obedience classes, as well as the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen Test, a test that is considered the gold standard for dog behavior — testing a dog’s ability to handle other dogs, take commands and not show a reactive nature around other dogs.
Following Sadie’s success with the AKC’s test, Thompson thought Sadie could be a great therapy dog, so they took the course and passed the test. Since then, Thompson and Sadie have been visiting nursing and assisted living facilities, juvenile halls and county jails.
Beyond obedience training, Sadie has completed a lot of tracking work as well, using her nose to find hidden items. Thompson said that when he visits the inmates, sometimes he’ll carry with him a treat inside a container so that the inmates can hide it for Sadie to find. He also totes his treat pouch so he can have Sadie sit, shake, lie down or walk through a cone configuration to provide the inmates with entertainment if desired.
The weekly visits last about an hour and are predominantly in a group setting at the Maple Street facility, with each group consisting of about five to six women. Each inmate receives her own time with the dog.
Apart from easing stress and tension in an inmate, Zuno says the program works to better the general environment in the jail.
“We know that if we help them then it reduces our risks more too because if they have less stress and anxiety, the chances of acting up or a violent episode are less likely, so this helps us because we don’t have to engage with a hostile or emotionally unstable inmate,” Zuno said.
With the program off to such a positive start, Zuno said he hopes to increase the frequency with more pets coming to bond with the inmates.