Program helps get dogs ready for adoption
Damien Fisher, The Gardner News
REGION /WEST BOYLSTON — Remy was sent to jail for jumping on people. Gabe had a nipping problem. And Kingston was just too skittish.
Luis Maldonado holds on to the leash while Richard Velazquez gets Remy to jump for a ball. The inmates have been working to help the dog lose weight and be gentler with people.
These are not criminal offenses, but they are traits that will keep shelter dogs from being adopted into new families. If uncorrected, these are traits that will get dogs sent back to shelters after they are adopted, creating a cycle of incarceration for dogs in need of help.
A new program being run at the Worcester County House of Correction has inmates train these shelter dogs, rehabilitating the canines to get them ready for release.
“At the shelter, we have a limited amount of time, as do most people,” said Lindsay Doray, the adoption center manager for the Second Chance Animal Shelter, a no-kill shelter in East Brookfield.
The shelter does not give up on the dogs, but there are always a few that are tough to place. That’s where the inmates come in.
“The inmate has the time to work with the dogs,” said Worcester County Sheriff Lew Evangelidis.
Studies have shown that inmates who bond with animals have lower rates of re-offending and going back to jail, Mr. Evangelidis said. There are also studies that show an animal in a jail setting will help ease tension and stress, making it safer for the jail staff and the inmates.
This all sounded like enough of an upside for Mr. Evangelidis to start looking for an agency to bring in dogs. He initially considered an organization that trains service animals for veterans, but that group needed a two-year commitment, too much for most inmates.
Bobby, an inmate at the Worcester County House of Correction, has been training Gabe for almost six weeks.
County jail inmates are sentenced to no more than two and a half years. Second Chance needed help getting the dogs it rescues ready for adoption, with the necessary training typically set at two months. In a few weeks with the inmates, both Gabe and Remy have turned around their behavior.
Gabe is much better about nipping, and Remy has stopped jumping on people. Kingston has been in jail for a week, and his skittishness has already started to ease. Initially considered overweight, Remy has even lost 20 pounds while staying in the jail.
The inmates are with the dogs 24 hours a day. Each dog gets two inmates in the minimum-security building at the jail campus. These are the inmates who are least likely to cause trouble and who are making progress in their own rehabilitation. They have outside jobs through the sheriff’s community outreach programs, and they are all considered nonviolent. They are still inmates in a jail.
“Jail is stressful,” said Hilary Malloy, the staff member overseeing the dog program. “The dogs have made such a difference.”
A bad letter from home or a hard phone call with a relative can make it tough for even the inmates in the minimum security building. The dogs provide an outlet for the inmates. They can take the animals out into the yard and play to relieve some of the stress, she said.
All of this attention makes the dogs better and more adoptable, and it helps the inmates as well. Trainers from the shelter come out every week to work with the inmates who handle the dogs. They learn what to do for the animals and how to care for them.
“I like taking care of the dog, it gives me more of a sense of responsibility,” said Richard Velazquez, one of Remy’s trainers.
The dogs are well loved by all the inmates in the building and the staff. The inmates who train the dogs keep them in their dorm-like rooms, training them in basic commands every day, and taking them out to a fenced-off section of the recreation yard for playing.
“Never in a million years,” said Bobby, one of the inmates training Gabe. “I never thought they would have dogs to train with.”
Not all of the inmates wanted their full names used in this story.
Bobby had dogs on the outside and he has enjoyed getting close to Gabe. It’s not just the companionship of having the dog around, though. Being a dog trainer also gives him someone else to think about.
“It’s been a lot of responsibility,” he said. “You’re not just thinking of your own needs.”
Ms. Doray hopes to have as many as six dogs placed in the jail with inmates. The consistent and near-constant training the inmates are able to provide prepares these dogs for adoption much faster than her typical volunteers can. For a small shelter like Second Chance, that’s huge, she said.
“The dogs are able to get out and into homes much faster,” she said.
Remy has made so much progress that a jail staff member is adopting him.
“When he leaves, I’m going to miss him,” said inmate Luis Maldonado, Remy’s other trainer. “When you get an attachment to a dog, it hurts.”