This Therapy Dog Goes to Jail… Every Week!

Therapy dog
Nicholas Thomas looks forward to his visits with Bella at the Fairmont Jail.

This month’s interview is with a dog that goes to jail… every week. Meet Bella – a working dog who loves her job!

Hi Bella! It’s an honor to meet you!

Good morning! I’m so happy you’re here to talk with me. I love my job!

Before we talk about your job, which is very interesting, can you share with us a little bit about yourself?

Sure! I’m a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. I’m 10 years old. My mom is Joyce Jacobson. She adopted me from the Humane Society; they rescued me from a puppy mill. We live in Truman and I have a very important job, which I’ve been doing for six years! Can I tell you about my job?

Therapy dog waits in Command Center at County Jail
Bella waits at the Fairmont Jail Command Center before visiting with residents.

Please do!

I’m a certified therapy dog. I visit with people to help them relax or smile, usually both. I work in the Martin County Jail and in the Blue Earth County Jail, which is in Mankato.  While I mostly work in jails, I’ve also done hospice and schoolwork in the past.

Therapy dog with jail resident
Jonathan Lantry enjoys meeting with Bella in his cell at the Fairmont Jail.

Have I told you that I love my job? But it requires a lot of stamina, judgement, and restraint. You don’t know how hard it is not to run up and greet everyone I see! I just want to make them smile! But I know from my training who to approach and how. That’s where my certification from Therapy Dogs International comes in handy. The training I went through, the tests I passed, and the ongoing medical exams I undergo, ensure I’m able to do therapy work. My workdays run between four and six hours a day, including commuting time. That’s why stamina is important.

Tell me about your work at the Martin County Jail (MCJ).

Because we only visit MCJ once a month and because the United Methodist Church, of which my mother is member, is right down the street, we usually make our visits to MCJ a little “special.” For example, the church at Christmas time will bring in Christmas cards and I’ll help the residents fill them out so the church can send them to residents’ friends and families. My mom and I also celebrate my birthday at the jail; she brings the residents ice cream. They really like celebrating my birthday!

Therapy dog stands outside a jail cell
Jail Programmer Shelly Bell prepares to unlock a cell for Bella and Joyce to visit with residents.

When I visit with MCJ residents, Shelly Bell, Jail Programmer, walks me down the narrow hallway, unlocks a heavy, blue metal cell door leading into a cell. Jail programmers like Shelly oversee a variety of programs to help residents stay healthy and prepare for success once they leave the jail. Programs range from GED prep to bible studies to dog therapy. Once Shelly unlocks the door, I walk into the cell and wait to be greeted by the resident. Once they greet me, we usually sit on the floor and they pet me, talk with me, and tell me about their pets if they have any. A lot of them have pets, whom they miss a lot. They love to gently tug on and rub my floppy ears. I always leave them smiling. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of: the smiles.

Can you tell me a little bit about your mom, Joyce Jacobson?

I love my mom more than anything else in the whole wide world. She is 73 and is a retired nurse anesthetist from the Twin Cities. She is the most caring person I know. I suppose that’s why she was drawn to therapy work. I’m so proud to help her. She takes good care of me; I’ve got heart issues and cancer but mom makes sure I am healthy and strong enough to continue working. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have a job!

Therapy dog with her loving owner
Bella is a certified therapy dog. She and her mom, Joyce Jacobson, visit jails in Southern Minnesota.

I understand! Let’s talk about the work you do in Mankato.

As soon as I walk in, I immediately get to work in the jail lobby. That’s where I meet residents’ family members, their friends, and maybe even get to see a former resident who is coming in for parole or some other meeting. I don’t want to brag, but I know I lighten the mood in the lobby. People are so happy to see a dog in a place that isn’t usually a “happy” place. They pet me, tell me about and show me pictures of their dogs, and the children always want to hold me. You can almost feel the anxiety lift. I love it. By the time I leave the room, everyone is smiling.

Therapy dog with jail residents
Debra Cardinal, Morgan Cassman and Kassandra Wilson meet with Bella in the Blue Earth County Jail.

That’s so heartwarming!

And then Sergeant Brian Shoemaker, Jail Programs, comes into the lobby and escorts me through some locked doors. We walk down a hallway and past the command center. Brian unlocks a door into a meeting room and I go in and wait for residents to come see me. The command center guards tell residents I’m there and whoever has earned the privilege to see me and wants to, can enter the meeting room. I usually meet three to six residents at a time. They come into the room, see me, break into a big smile and immediately get on the floor so we can visit nose-to-nose. I make sure I visit with each resident, even those who may be really sad and sitting by themselves in a corner of the room. I’ll never forget the resident who told me he wouldn’t see me next week or ever again because he was going to kill himself. Mom and I got him the help he needed, he later thanked me and today I’m proud to report that he’s studying to be a minister and is already helping other residents!

A popular picture of Bella, the therapy dog
Jail residents like Bella’s Viking football picture. They display her pictures, which Joyce provides, in their cells.

My mom brings pictures of me to the visits and hands the pictures out to the residents. One picture is of me in a Halloween costume; I’m dressed as a pumpkin. In another, I’m dressed as a Leprechaun for St. Patrick’s Day. The most popular picture right now is of me in a Vikings football shirt. The residents collect the pictures and even display them in their cells. I’ve heard that pictures of me are all over the Blue Earth County Jail! I’m a celebrity!

Therapy dog with jail resident
Fairmont Jail resident Jerry Powers smiles as Bella visits with him outside of his cell. He has helped train service dogs and said seeing Bella “made my week!”

Can you tell me some of reasons you think your visits are so popular with the residents?

They tell me I remind them of their pets. They like that I’m calm and they can hold me; that I’m happy and I show it with my tail wags. Shelly said they like that I’m not judgmental: I treat them all the same. Brian said I give the residents the opportunity to feel something other than a cold jail. They can touch something that’s normally found only outside of the facility. He said I’m “good therapy.” That’s a nice compliment.

Thank you for this interview Bella!

You’re welcome. My mom and I are the only ones that do this kind of work here. If any would-be therapy dogs are reading this, I hope they’ll consider signing up for jail visits.

Aren’t you going to ask me what celebrity I most resemble?

You beat me to the punch, Bella!

I think I look like The Lone Ranger! We both have masks around our eyes. I’m cuter of course!

Separated at birth?

 

 

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5 Comments Add yours

  1. Sandra Austin says:

    I think that this dog therapy program is sooo wonderful 👍, can see how the people who get to use it would love having the relationship with a dog like Bella. She gives them the chance to feel and share good emotions ❤️,

  2. Michelle (Shelly) Bell says:

    November 16, 2017
    Hey Linda it’s Bella. I wanted to write you to let you know how excited I was when I saw the article about my mother Joyce and me in the Photo Press yesterday. I have been anxiously waiting to see how it turned out! It is a great article (and I hope that it never appears as a lining of any of my buddy’s kennels!) It deserves to be read by many. I never did get a chance to” speak” to you one on one about my job and how I appreciate all that my mom does for me every day. I hope many readers take a look at the article for many reasons. Most importantly, I want people to understand how my mother Joyce saved my life when she adopted me. It is true, that she adopted me from a Humane Society when I was around two years of age. That first couple of years of my life were spent in a puppy mill where my only job consisted of having puppies. Don’t get me wrong…being a parent is a wonderful thing, but that is all I did. I had a litter of pups and they were taken from me and sold. My health was not always great and I have no idea what care my puppies were given. I got no attention while I worked there. I sat in a cage and looked outside the bars every day. No one spoke to me or it was very little if someone did. I got fed and watered on their time. I rarely even got a blanket to lie down on. It was a cold dark place. I felt very alone and many times I felt hopeless. It was a little like being an inmate in jail. I met several great friends while I was staying at the Humane Society and I sure hope that they were all given a chance like I was. I encourage everyone to take a look at adoption or volunteering. Being rescued from the puppy mill and waiting to be adopted from the Humane Society is what changed my life. Did you know that there are often many purebreds that are up for adoption in many agencies? Joyce came in and looked around….I still don’t know exactly why she picked me (but I am pretty sure it is because of my eyes). She overlooked my flaws, did not pass judgement on my past and she was willing to take a chance on me. She was willing to work with me and give me a future. We ended up taking obedience classes together which is how I became certified as a therapy dog. I guess the rest is obvious….. Mom takes care of me every day….she bathes me, brushes my teeth and she takes me to the vet if need shots or I am not feeling well and she helps me with my meds if I need any. But most importantly, she loves me unconditionally. I guess that is one of the reasons that I love my job now. I have had such a good teacher. When I go “do my job” in the Martin County Jail, I am loved unconditionally there too! I get loved for doing my job!! Every inmate is incarcerated for a different reason, some worse than others. Some spend more time with me than others care to, and that is ok. Some I might only get to meet once, some I have known for quite a while. I do my job the same for everyone. They all seem to appreciate my visit and I love to visit them. I don’t judge them and I don’t care why they are in jail. I too, look into their eyes and know that they deserve a chance in life like me………
    If anyone else might want to volunteer for something at the jail, I know that they could call and ask for Shelly and she would help you like she helps my mom and me, many jails are always looking for volunteers.
    Thanks again Linda….and Thank You Joyce, for being my mom and seeing what you saw in me…..
    Love,
    Bella

    1. Linda says:

      What a beautiful letter! Thank you so much Shelly for giving us a deeper look into Bella’s life!

  3. Michelle (Shelly) Bell says:

    This is Shelly….lost one of the love’s of my life this morning….he was a crazty little Chihuahua….RIP Bentley….we love you. Thanks for doing what you dogs/pets do for us. You are my therapy!

    1. Linda says:

      Shelly, I’m so sorry! 😢 I truly believe in the pet rainbow bridge …. you will reunite with Bentley soon 🌸

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