Greene Co. Juvenile Justice Center takes doggone approach to relieving stress and raising morale

Published: Aug. 8, 2022 at 5:58 PM CDT|Updated: Aug. 8, 2022 at 6:14 PM CDT
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - It can be a stressful, uncertain, and emotional experience for youngsters when they become involved in the juvenile justice system.

But now Greene County has a new counselor to support them who’s always willing to lift a helping paw.

”We try to recognize the fact that coming to court and interacting with our office can be a traumatic experience,” said Bill Prince, Greene County’s Chief Juvenile Officer, and Family Court Administrator. “So we were looking at any number of ways to try and reduce that.”

Officials started working on the answer in 2019 and, in June of this year, added a non-salaried employee who never raises his voice, walks on four legs instead of two, and always offers unconditional love and loyalty wherever he goes.

Duo Dog Derby is a moniker chosen because he was gifted to Greene County by the St. Louis-based non-profit Duo Dogs, which trains therapy and facility dogs. The three-year-old English Labrador can do many things a support animal can do, but his job at the juvenile justice center is to calm the nerves and bring a smile to those going through tough times.

The juvenile justice center has several units, including those dealing with law violators and those that deal with young people who have experienced abuse and neglect.

“He is such a people person and friendly, and that’s part of his training is to be petted and interacted with,” explained Ethan Potter, one-of-three handlers for Derby, who’s also the justice center’s Clinical Coordinator. “We might go from an adoption to a detention hearing to an individual counseling session. He can pick up on emotions and feelings, and there is just something that’s calming about a dog.”

Potter has noticed a tremendous difference in his counseling sessions.

“When I’m meeting with someone without the dog, it can sometimes be very rigid and uncomfortable,” he said. “But then, as soon as Derby comes into the equation, it just has a way of helping them to open up. Then we can talk about some really deep, heavy things.”

Derby also shows up at the family treatment court with youngsters dealing with substance abuse problems.

“Derby does sit up at the table with them as they’re speaking to the judge,” Potter said. “I’m told a lot of times they’ll say hello to Derby before they say hello to the judge.”

Derby also goes to the detention area.

“We have kids back in detention who tend to get dysregulated (becoming overly emotional in terms of anger, irritability, frustration or frustration) sometimes, and when you bring a dog in, they just chill out,” Prince said.

“Usually, youth who are detained in there don’t get excited and aren’t happy to be there,” Potter added. “But for Derby, that’s his playground because he gets to play in the gym. So when he knows what’s about to happen, he gets very excited, and his tail starts wagging. So when we go back there, the atmosphere changes. It gets a little lighter.”

And, of course, Derby also spreads joy among the staff.

“I told my supervisor you might just want to plan for me to be late to any meeting from now on because whenever Derby is with me, people want to stop and pet him and interact with him,” Potter said with a laugh.

It may be hard to believe that a dog could make so much difference in just a month-and-a-half on duty, but Potter believes Derby is truly a game-changer.

“I think in the short time he’s been here, he has changed people’s lives,” he said. “Bringing these unconventional things into these spaces really changes the environment and the atmosphere for people.”

But then again, if you own a dog, you probably already knew that.

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