PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Multnomah County’s Juvenile Services Division and DoveLewis’ Portland Area Canine Therapy Team have brought furry, four-legged therapists to a detention center in Northeast Portland.
The DoveLewis Emergency Animal Hospital was founded in 1973, but its Portland Area Canine Therapy Teams got their start 40 years later in 2013. Years after starting with zero teams and zero facilities, the donor-supported community program now has 82 teams of handlers and dogs, and an ever-growing list of facilities that they partner with.
The therapy dogs are either highly-trained career change dogs or retired guide dogs from Guide Dogs for the Blind. These dogs have been trained to be service animals since they were born.
PACTT dog handlers must have a career change or retired guide dog themselves, and they undergo formal training as well. As a part of their training, teams learn about crisis response, court victim support, psychological first aid and more.
Kathy Loter, PACTT’s program manager, has seen firsthand how therapy dogs positively impact those who need them most. She said that PACTT has a strong presence in the court system, and many of its team members have supported abuse victims who have to testify in court.
“We had one little girl who was 5 and she had been waiting two years to testify because she had to be old enough and she just did not want to go in and do this,” Loter said. “It’s pretty daunting for adults to go into a courtroom — let alone a small child.”
Ultimately, the young girl found the courage to walk into the courtroom wearing a Wonder Woman costume with the support of a PACTT therapy dog and handler.
“Time and time again that is what happens when our dogs go into a courtroom with someone. It just helps push a reset button for that person and helps them to be able to collect their thoughts and actually testify,” Loter said.
PACTT has gotten similar results while serving the Donald E. Long Detention Center. Dolly and Sandy, two black Labrador Retrievers, have visited youth and staff at the center every three weeks for about two months.
Both dogs have proven to be very intuitive. Sandy often determines which person in the room needs her the most and will stand by their side the whole time.
“We don’t know what these kids’ stories are and we don’t need to know. We just need to know that we are there for them with these dogs,” Loter said.
Research shows that dogs can decrease stress levels, blood pressure and ease feelings of loneliness and depression. The PACTT team continues to see how much the energy in a room is uplifting after their therapy dogs walk in.
“We’re there to let the dog do what the dog does. It gives love. It does something that few humans can do — it quietly listens. We’re always trying to fill a space with words, but the dog is just there,” Loter said.