Arlington County jail introduces inmates to pet therapy

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New mental health program created in hopes to reduce recidivism

ARLINGTON, Va. (WDVM) — Pet therapy is a well known form of treatment that includes guided interaction between an individual and a trained animal to help cope with a disorder, and it’s the latest way Arlington County is helping inmates shift their thoughts.

The new program is part of the County jail’s Moral Reconation Therapy (MRT), which is a 12-step treatment approach used by detention centers to decrease the chances an inmate will re-offend by increasing moral reasoning.

“When they look at decision making not just what’s right and wrong but really whats the highest level of morality that they can achieve,” said Program Manager, Audrey Graham.

In the long run, officials say the program will help reduce recidivism and increase positive self-regard. Research shows that pet therapy can develop inmates’ thinking by providing a non-judgmental interaction based on unconditional love, which promotes positive self-regard and trusting relationships.

“We talk about feelings of vulnerability, we work on trusting ourselves and trusting the world and also your loyalty to your commitment and I feel like all 3 of those concepts we can learn from pets,” Sonia Shuhart, the programs mental health therapist said.

“It gives them a sense of what is important to life and being successful when they leave the detention facility,” Sheriff Beth Arthur said.

So far those who are in the program say it’s working.

“When I first came in here I was just mad you know just being in jail in general…it made me don’t want to be in trouble and it made me think about a lot of things I did,” said Damon Smith, who has been in Arlington County jail for 16 months.

The program is a partnership between the county’s Department of Human Services (DHS) and a DC-based nonprofit, People.Animals.Love.

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