Therapy dog helps teens heal at Miami detention center

When folks from the Miami-Dade Regional Juvenile Detention Center (MDRJDC) went looking for the perfect therapy dog for their incarcerated teens, they looked no further than a good-natured black Labrador Retriever named Justice, whom they found at the Big Dog Ranch Rescue in Wellington, Fla.

Justice is the first dog to walk the halls at a center for youths in Florida. (Photo credit: Florida Department of Juvenile Justice)

Justice first joined the MDRJDC team back in January after spending time training under Miami Dog Whisperer Richard Heinz and personal dog trainer Oscar Anzueto, and he has been making a difference ever since. After officially receiving his Canine Good Citizen and Therapy Dog certifications in June, Justice is now the first pet therapy canine in the Miami Juvenile Justice system.

Prisons and detention facilities across the country have adopted different canine programs and have found the results to be overwhelmingly successful. While other correctional facilities in Florida have their own therapy dogs, Justice is the first to walk the halls at a center for youths in the state.

South Region Detention Director Dr. Gladys Negron tells CBS News Miami that the pilot program is making all the difference for the youth at her facility, who have started to look at Justice as an essential friend and ally.

“Animals can play an important role in adolescent development,” Negron explains. “They can become a source of love, companionship and responsibility which helps smooth the transition from childhood through adulthood.”

Many of the young people in the Miami juvenile detention system came from difficult backgrounds. Spending time with Justice helps the teens alleviate stress and come to terms with the challenges in their past. Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Wansley Walters tells NBC Miami that Justice lends a willing ear to the teens and provides them with comforting non-verbal feedback.

“Many of the youth in our care had difficult, sometimes painful, relationships with other people prior to entering the juvenile justice system,” Walters said in a recent press release. “In addition to traditional therapies, we are proud to offer pet therapy to help youth cope with the emotions youth experience while in detention and away from their families.”

Teens at the Miami juvenile facilities are praising Justice, too, telling the press how the loyal Lab has boosted their confidence and brightened their outlook on life.

“Justice has helped me become more outgoing and stress free,” one youth says. “Even though we are secured, when we go outside to play with Justice I feel a bit of freedom.

“[Justice] made me feel unstressed and helped me forget about all the crazy things I had on my mind,” says another teen.

Sources: NBC Miami, CBS News Miami