Man's best friend may help teens in Fairfax County from becoming repeat offenders

Staff and volunteers are turning to an alternative therapy to help the youngest repeat offenders.

While more than half of those detained at the Fairfax County juvenile detention center go on to become success stories, the remaining do not -- and ultimately return to the court system as adult criminals.

"How did I end up here? Just making mistakes," says 18-year-old Anthony.

"Bad decision making," said 18-year-old Adam.

"I guess I was hanging with the wrong crowd of people," says Gianni.

All three young men are now at a crossroads while at the Fairfax County juvenile detention center. And they know it.

"Because I'm 18 now and I don't want to get out there and do the same thing. I feel like this has helped me a lot to turn my thinking pattern around," said Gianni.

The teenage boys are all facing criminal charges or sentencing. Their futures remain in limbo but a new therapy dog program at the juvenile detention center is hoping to help shape it, for the better.

"Accountability, integrity. I've learned to do good things even though people aren't really watching," said Adam.

"It brings me some peace to be able to play with them, interact with them, pet them, make them do some tricks," said Adam.

"I might do something with animals."

"Looking at how we handle our discipline practices is one side of it, but the other side of that coin is what are the things that we can start to pick up on that we can intervene early. Something that we can maybe suggest. Some interventions can occur much earlier than before they ever even get in real trouble," said Fairfax County Public Schools board member Elizabeth Schultz.

"The nice thing about dogs is they don't pass judgment," said Sonny Madsen. She started K9 Caring Angels eight years ago.

"It's a proven fact that even touching a dog will calm a person, it released endorphins and so it's an all-around positive experience."

An encounter rarely captured.

"I think the biggest misconception is people think that a detention center is probably like a jail, maybe what they see in the movies," said Eric Shaver, Fairfax County Juvenile Detention Center principal.

He said despite the best efforts happening here: "You know, unfortunately, there are some not so positive outcomes and we just hope that while we have them here, we have a captive audience."

The detention center is exploring options to offer students training focused on animal-assisted therapy. Two of the teens we interviewed just receive their GED at the center. There are 47 students currently in custody at the detention center.

Officials say that number was nearly triple 20 years ago, but now, the crimes committed by young people are much worse.