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Compassion for humans and dogs leads to the creation of programs to help both man and his best friend rehabilitate for better futures.
Prison bars are a common denominator for both inmates and shelter dogs. Both have led rough lives, and in most cases both have made quite a few mistakes before ending up in a cell. But the mistakes they’ve made may not determine the true character of the individual or the dog that resides within the concrete walls of these “prisons.”
Within the country’s heartland in Lansing, Kansas, a small team of animal lovers launched the Safe Harbor Prison Dogs Program in August of 2004. The program helps both shelter dogs and prisoners get a second chance at life, and gives them the opportunity to prove they’re worth the effort. Today, five years later, Safe Harbor is now in the process of rehabilitating 75 dogs with over 100 handlers from the Lansing Correctional Facility (LCF).
“We’ve been involved in this pretty much seven days a week for the last five years, and we’re still having a really good time,” said Brett Petersen, Safe Harbor Campus Registered Agent and program volunteer. Their dedication brings dogs from overcrowded shelters in the Lansing area into a program that prepares them with basic obedience for sucessful adoption into happy homes.
When brought into the program, the pups are assigned to a handler (inmate) and go in to live with their trainer in dormitories within the minimum and medium security facilities at LCF. There are no specific prerequisites for the match-up, described Petersen, who then chuckled and light-heartedly went on to say, “I always get a kick out of taking the biggest dogs for the smallest dog handlers in stature.”
Size in stature really doesn’t seem to matter in the Safe Harbor program, neither does it matter one’s level of “toughness;” it’s all about the size of the heart. Via the program, the men learn to fawn over their new best friends, especially the new puppy arrivals.
“We’ve had puppies born in the prison. I have a pregnant dog at the dormitory right now and I have 12 extremely worried inmates making sure she’s taken care of,” says Petersen.
Almost an oxymoron, these “scary” prisoners held for criminal offenses are finding themselves caring for another living being, possibly for the first time. The animal’s health and development is completely in the hands of the inmate, allowing the men to slowly regain their ability to love unconditionally.
One of Safe Harbor’s veteran handlers, 37-year-old Jeff, is serving over 58 years in prison, but in the last five years he’s made a huge contribution to society, all from his jail cell. Through the program, Jeff has trained 75 shelter dogs who’ve all gone on to happy forever homes.
Jeff, who did not want to disclose his last name or criminal charges, began his prison dogs journey with two small puppies named Gypsy and Cinnamon. “The training process for them was a little hard, especially the potty training. I was in a maximum security unit and had to wait to get out of my cell to take them out at times. The staff was extremely patient though,” said Jeff about his first handler experience.
Jeff is now a pro at this, though inevitably with every new dog there are new challenges. “Right now I have an 11-month-old deaf, white Boxer. She is afraid of hand gestures (probably from being smacked around by someone who thought she could hear and was just ignoring them), so teaching her basic commands is pretty challenging.” But Jeff perseveres and loves the animals he’s worked with, which have brought him a very long way from the man he was just five short years ago.
“There’s a lot of building them up, because most of the inmates are lacking in self-esteem. Many of them are closed to love and are learning about doggie kisses for the first time. And many of them have not touched a dog in ten years,” explained Donna Shawver, Training Director for PAL Humane Society’s Prison PALs program, which includes the Building Attachments Rehabilitating Kids (B.A.R.K.) program held at the High Desert Juvenile Detention Center in Victorville, California.
Fledgling programs, both B.A.R.K. and the Federal Correctional Institute’s Prison PALs were initiated by Sister Pauline Quinn of Pathways To Hope in partnership with Katherine Schlintz, President and CEO of the PAL Humane Society. Dedicated to the power of prison dog programs, Sr. Quinn enlisted Shawver to help start this particular program in Victorville. Shawver happily and selflessly volunteered her time and expertise as a certified service dog trainer to the programs.
B.A.R.K. tries to reach youth in two ways – by teaching humane education about various animals, including dogs, and by allowing those minors who’ve earned the privilege the opportunity to participate in dog training classes.
Shawver likened the minors in this institution to the shelter dogs that come through its program. “They’re shy or they’re overaggressive, or they’re trying to be tough or they’re scared of the world.” But, despite their rough beginnings, the youth learn about responsibility and unconditional love from the dogs that Shawver and Schlintz bring into the program, and in turn the dogs learn about patience, obedience, positive reinforcement, and that humans are truly a dog’s best friend.
The minors have shown great promise and many have refused to lose their privileges when baited to fight with other youth in the facility, and Shawver says that’s a good sign.
“These kids have all committed felonies. We don’t know what the kids’ offenses are, but I can tell you right now that a nine-year-old felon has some serious stuff going on and if I can bring a dog in and affect that child in a positive way then I’ve done something good,” said Shawver.
She’s also done something good for the dogs that have graduated out of this program. Because of their basic obedience, these dogs have a stronger likelihood of staying in their forever homes. “The chances of that dog coming back to the shelter are very slim,” Shawver said. Usually, lack of obedience training is one of the main reasons a dog returns to a shelter, and this program helps shelter dogs find a home and keep it.
The prison dogs programs are prompting positive changes across the board. In the Safe Harbor program, the health of prisoners was tremendously affected by the energy of the dogs. “We have dog handlers that have medical concerns,” said Petersen. “They may be diabetic, or have chronic care issues, or may be medically unable to work. But they can take care of a dog. Then they’re outside and they’re getting more exercise. We’ve seen some decrease in medications for people who are dog handlers.” Petersen explained that some may not believe the results – even he seemed astonished by them, but that the proof was apparent.
In addition, the socialization of the dogs among people of all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds has actually led to increased positive socialization among inmates and even between prisoners and staff. Safe Harbor stocks treats in the prison store, and prisoners who are not in the program will purchase them to interact with the dogs, which then leads to positive interaction with the handlers, their fellow inmates.
“If you are walking a vivacious, 4-month-old boxer puppy on a leash, even the grumpiest of folks will stop and want to pet the puppy,” said Petersen with a kind laugh.
Safe harbor provides staff with free treats and it’s not uncommon to find prison personnel digging around in their pockets to treat a pooch walking by in the prison yard. “In prison, if you’re a staff person it wouldn’t be appropriate for you to have a conversation with an inmate about anything personal, but you can certainly have a conversation about a dog,” explains Petersen. The prison staff have truly embraced the program, and in fact are among the many that have adopted the dogs that have come through the prison dogs program.
The majority of the Safe Harbor dogs were on shelter death row at the top of the euthanasia list. Here, with the inmates, there’s no need to fear being put down. Truth be told, both inmates and staff are always on the dog’s side. If circumstances arise where a dog bites a handler (which is extremely rare), everyone’s quick to blame the humans.
“It’s never the dog’s fault,” says Petersen. “That’s what they tell me because they don’t want the dog to get euthanized. But we’re not about killing dogs, we’re about saving dogs.”
Sympathetic to the dogs’ plight, prisoners seem to believe whole-heartedly in giving the dogs a new “leash” on life. Inmate Jeff agreed and it’s obvious that the dogs have touched his life.
“My dogs are my best friends while they are here. They love you unconditionally and don’t ask for anything in return but love.” He went on to say that nothing compares to the sense of accomplishment felt when you’ve trained an obedient, loving pup.
To adopt the dogs in the Safe Harbor Prison Dogs program, visit them online here or call them at (913) 634-5955. Safe Harbor holds private showings of the dogs at the Lansing Correctional Facility prison yard Wednesdays at 6 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Please call before attending.
To adopt the dogs in the B.A.R.K. and Prison PALs program visit them online here or call them at (760) 240-6848.
Images courtesy of Safe Harbor Prison Dogs program and Katherine Schlintz of PAL Humane Society.
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