Michigan inmates help dogs become good canines

By Joe Swickard

Detroit Free Press

DETROIT (AP) -- Think rehabilitation in prison is some kumbaya pipe dream?

Try telling that to Trixie, Garvey, Juliet, Charlie, Jonas, Bristol, Hercules, Apollo, Jezebel and Marie.

They might want to give you a nip, but they are far too well behaved.

Thanks to their stint at the Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility, the 10 former orphan hounds are now roll-over-and-rub-my-tummy certified Canine Good Citizens, ready to join new families in life outside the walls.

On Dec. 15, the dogs completed 10 weeks of intensive training, love and focused attention with 20 inmate handlers that transformed them from shelter animals to adoption-ready pets through a partnership of the Humane Society of Huron Valley and the prison in southeast Washtenaw County.

"These were dogs that were kenneling well, but needed some help to get them ready to go into homes," said Helen DePinto, the Humane Society's director of behavior programs.

The graduation is the first for MI-PAWS -- Michigan Inmates Providing Assistance Work & Service -- at the Huron Valley prison, and it's a win-win-win proposition.

The dogs become well-trained and socialized, the inmates learn a positive service while being held to tight-performance standards, and the adopters get a happy, loving pet, DePinto said.

"It seems that a lot of the trainers are lifers and they don't have a lot to look forward to," said James Ward, a Catholic deacon and prison chaplain.

"This gives them something positive to do. It's really throwing them a lifeline," he said.

"They are totally responsible for the dog, and if they neglect to scoop up, they can be out," Ward said.

DePinto said inmates have to pass a rigorous screening and training to qualify. A sterling disciplinary record, reading and writing skills and common sense are part of the criteria, she said.

After training, two inmates are assigned to each dog. The dog remains with them 24-hours-a-day, even sleeping in inmate's room.

The program requires full-time accountability by the inmates, who also must use teamwork, pay attention to detail and keep a clean disciplinary record.

The dogs work toward the American Kennel Club's Good Canine Citizenship certification.

To graduate, the dogs have to master basic commands such as "sit," "down" and "come." The dogs are also house-trained, able to walk nicely on a leash and tolerate loud noises. Many learn pet tricks, too.

The program started four years ago at the Coldwater prison complex, where Warden Carol Howes gives it two big paws up.

Howes said the program started with rescued greyhounds and has expanded to other dogs.

"It is just a wonderful program for the inmates and the animals," she said.

DePinto said the dogs at Huron Valley are generally 1-2 years old. Four are pit bulls, or pit bull-mixes.

"Those dogs are the stars of the program," said DePinto, adding the pit bull breed is a victim of bad publicity.

Of course, she said, each dog has an individual personality and traits. Some dogs can get along with other animals, others can't. The energy level and rambunctious nature of some dogs point toward active adult owners. But others tend to be cuddle pups, DePinto said.

Like the dogs, potential owners get a screening to make sure the animals move into proper homes.

The dogs are a bargain, but not free.

For a $140 fee, the new owners get a dog with solid basic skills, neutering or spaying, shots, a microchip ID and heartworm testing.

Published: Wed, Feb 9, 2011


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