A black lab known as "Justice" is making the rounds at a Miami juvenile detention center as part of a new pilot program to help youth while they are incarcerated.
Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Wansley Walters said he is the first pet therapy canine to serve within a Florida juvenile justice facility and says more facilities around the state will start using therapy dogs as part of the Canine Comfort Program.
Walters says many teens in detention centers have been through trauma and painful relationships before entering the system and therapy dogs can help them "cope with the emotions youth experience while in detention and away from their families. Studies have indicated dogs not only have the ability to listen, also provide people with the feeling of unconditional empathetic non-verbal feedback."
One youth said playing with Justice "made me feel unstressed and helped me forget about all the crazy things I had on my mind," according to a release from DJJ officials Wednesday.
Another said, "Justice has helped me become more outgoing and stress free. Even though we are secured, when we go outside to play with Justice I feel a bit of freedom."
Justice was certified as a therapy dog last month and started at the Miami-Dade Regional Juvenile Detention Center in January. The dog came from Big Dog Ranch Rescue in Wellington.
"Animals can play an important role in adolescent development," said Dr. Gladys Negron, the agency's south region detention director. "They can become a source of love, companionship and responsibility which helps smooth the transition from childhood through adulthood."
Pet therapy programs have been popular for years in hospitals around the state. The Florida Department of Corrections also has several dog therapy programs, including one where inmates train dogs to sit, stay, come and walk on a leash before being put up for adoption.