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Monday, December 1, 2014

Shelter Animals Team Up With Prisoners for Meaningful Change

Affordable Pet HealthCare - Your Pets Deserve it

 by Lauren Zanolli

A recent graduating Paws on Parole class and their new adoptive families.
They say jail changes a man. In Alachua County, Florida, the same might be true for dogs, too.

Since 2009, the county’s prison and animal shelter have teamed up for Paws on Parole, an innovative program that pairs shelter dogs with inmates for eight weeks of intensive training behind prison walls. Certified dog handlers train inmates at two separate facilities: the prison work camp, with male inmates convicted of drug offenses, DUIs and other non-violent offenses; and the county jail, with female prisoners serving less than one year. For each eight-week “academy,” six to 12 shelter dogs are matched up with an inmate handler, with whom they live — usually in dorms holding up to 90 people — for 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The main aims of the Paws on Parole program are to provide inmates with meaningful work that benefits the community and to help hard-to-adopt dogs find a new home. The dogs graduate with a diploma certifying they are trained to American Kennel Club standards and find permanent homes with adoptive families. So far, Paws on Parole has trained over 200 dogs, with a 100 percent adoption rate. The program has become so popular that there are sometimes three times as many people interested in adopting than there are dogs available.

According to Hilary Hynes, the Public Education Program Coordinator at Alachua County Animal Services, the program has been just as successful with its two-legged participants.

“The program is giving shelter dogs a chance and it’s putting idle hands to work,” she says. “One of my guys is on his seventeenth dog. If you saw him you would hire him as a professional dog trainer today.” Another former participant started taking pre-veterinary classes after being released. Yet another started working as an entry-level helper at a dog kennel in neighboring Marion County as part of a work-release program, and has since progressed to kennel manager with a full-time job offer there upon his release. Several female inmate participants have gone on to work at dog grooming salons, Hynes says.

“They learn all the facets of dogcare,” she says, including emotional care. She points out that discarded shelter dogs, like the ones Paws on Parole works with, often have trust issues. The round-the-clock, one-on-one attention that the dogs receive in prison helps immensely with those issues and is not something that can be replicated inside an animal shelter.

Paws on Parole was initiated by the Alachua County prison officials, following the lead of several other correctional institutions in the state that adopted dog training as part of the vocational training curriculum. Besides teaching marketable skills like dog training and grooming, these programs have been shown to positively affect inmate behavior. The Wakulla Correctional Institution, for instance, saw a 50 percent drop in discipline problems prison-wide after starting its dog training program, even among prisoners that did not participate.

Hynes, who has worked at the shelter for 15 years, specifically chooses dogs that have been left behind by their former owners because of behavioral issues. “A lot of people discard dogs because they got them when they were adorable puppies, and then they get jumpy and annoying,” she says. “Eventually people will just get rid of it, but if they just reached out and asked for a little training help, we could help them through the process and the dogs would never end up in the shelter.”

To hear Hynes tell it, it’s unclear who gets more out of the program — the dogs or the inmates. “At the graduation ceremonies the guys are always crying, more so than the girls, when they pass their dogs to the new family,” Hynes says. Throughout the eight-week period, inmates keep a journal of their experience detailing all the joys and frustrations of dog training, and often help advise about what kind of owner would be a good fit for the dog.

For Hynes, the Paws on Parole program has been deeply touching, especially after a battle with breast cancer, during which she says inmates wrote her poems and letters of support. “I love these guys. For the most part they are really wonderful people, they've just made poor decisions,” she says. “All I want to do all the time is hug them because of how great they are and how good they are with their dogs. But because it’s prison,” she says with a laugh, “you can’t — there are rules against that.”