Nation's first detention center therapy K-9

Commissioners approve grant for Sheriff’s Office to get new therapy dog

After the county commissioners approved a grant agreement at this week’s meeting, the Sweetwater County Sheriff’s Office is on-track to have the first therapy K-9 program inside a detention center in the United States.

Sheriff John Grossnickle, Detention Center Deputy Caitlyn Zaragoza and Sweetwater County Grants Manager Krisena Marchal presented at the Sweetwater County Board of County Commissioners meeting on Tuesday to tell the commissioners about the idea for the new program and to get approval for a grant that will help get the program started.

The University of Wyoming awarded a maximum $5,000 Family to Family Health Information Center Mini-Grant to Sweetwater County which requires no cash match, Marchal explained.

“The purpose of this funding is to support Wyoming programs that help children and youth of special healthcare needs build and maintain positive, healthy relationships within their communities,” Marchal said.

The Sweetwater County Sheriff’s Office approached Marchal and requested to apply for this grant in order to make an idea they’ve had a reality.

“The project consists of starting a therapy K-9 program to support mental health for juveniles held in the detention center,” Marchal told the commissioners. “This funding will be used to purchase and train the dog.”

In 2021, the average stay of juveniles and young adults at the Sweetwater County Detention Center ranked from just under three days to about 99 days, determined from 46 individuals, according to Marchal. She explained the detention center can have up to 60 juveniles and young adults, some of whom come from other counties. Out of the juveniles and young adults who end up in the detention center, roughly three out of four suffer from mental health or substance abuse issues.

“The detention center is an ideal location for this project,” Marchal said, explaining therapy dogs are used to help with issues including stress, anxiety, depression, autism, ADHD, addiction, and emotional and behavioral conditions.

The idea of having a therapy dog at the detention center came from Deputy Caitlyn Zaragoza, who told the commissioners she is passionate about this program because she’s passionate about mental health. Zargoza explained they’ve brought the Green River Police Department therapy K-9 Buddy into the detention center and had a positive response from the inmates.

Not only would a therapy dog benefit the detention center, but it could also be used to help in the community in times of crisis, Zargoza explained.

“All around it just has endless possibilities,” she said of the program.

Sheriff John Grossnickle agreed, explaining other similar therapy dog programs have shown the many benefits that can come from it. He also pointed out no other detention centers in the country have a therapy dog, and being able to use the dog and other programs together to help with crisis intervention will put Sweetwater County “strides above anybody else in the state and the country.”

“You hear across Wyoming ‘we need to do something with mental health.’ Well, at the sheriff’s office we’re sick of hearing it, so we want to put our foot forward and start doing something about it,” Grossnickle said.

The county commissioners unanimously approved the grant award agreement.


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