I am the Executive Director and Humane Agent for the Clark County SPCA in Springfield, Ohio. I was formerly the Shelter Coordinator for the Humane Society Serving Clark County in Springfield, Ohio. During my time as the coordinator for the HSSCC, I wrote a proposal to the Allen/ Oakwood Correctional Facility to be considered for their PETS (Pets Educated to Survive) program, and I was accepted.
There were many requirements and rules that we had to follow to be able to participate in this program, such as, keeping the inmates supplied with necessary equipment, supplies, training treats, cleaning supplies, etc., that they needed to care for the animals that we brought to them. We, as volunteers entering the prison, had rules and regulations with which to comply each time we entered the facility, as well. Safety and security were always on the forefront of our minds each and every time we visited, both for us as volunteers and for our animals.
Our program always began with the trainers/ inmates spending time with the dog we had entrusted into their care to learn the dog’s mannerisms and behaviors. We called this first week “the bonding time”. We would always send along an intake form stating the reason we chose that particular dog for the program. Most of these dogs were strays with little to no manners, training, or social etiquette. They may have been taken from abusive situations or hoarding homes in which they were never socialized or had been traumatized in some manner. Their behavior upon intake at HSSCC would not have allowed them to pass temperament testing required for adoption to the public, hence making them unadoptable and placing them for euthanasia.
The program allowed for these “unadoptable” dogs to find loving and forever homes with the general public once they completed 8-10 (sometimes more) weeks of training. They were socialized, learned basic commands, were house trained and for many, they learned to walk on a leash for the first time in their lives. Some of these dogs had never felt compassion or love, and now knew that they could be treated differently and could live happy lives.
As the coordinator that chose the dogs for the program and placed them into the appropriate homes upon graduation, I can not state enough how many lives I have seen changed from this program, both people and dogs.
We had a dog with behavior issues that was not a good candidate for adoption. He was a cattle dog mix that never knew a home. After graduating from this program, he went into foster care and had a job being the greeter for Purina Farms. Once adopted into his forever home, he became a world champion disc dog and a very loved pet. Some have gone on to become Animal Assisted Therapy Dogs, while others have qualified as service or companion animals with owners that are handicapped. There are no words to describe the way the adoptive families feel about the dogs they have adopted from this program … and remember, they were not adoptable pets when entering this program.
Now, about the inmates. Over the years, I have watched some of these men grow immensely. They have become more compassionate, they learned patience and sometimes even love for the first time in their lives. Yes, they are there for a reason, but that doesn’t mean they can’t transform into a person more likely to succeed in the real world once paroled. I believe the PETS program changed these men for the better.
Are there bad apples, yes, always — anywhere and everywhere, but being a bad apple in this program meant immediate removal from the program. Imagine being locked away in prison and given the opportunity to have a dog in your cell to love and care for, then imagine that being taken away. Not many broke the rules and even fewer failed in their training abilities. Did we ever see a dog get injured? Yes we did. One tried to climb over a fence and hurt its paw; one tried to get out of its kennel during meal time and hurt it’s leg. This type of event could happen anywhere — even in your own home! Did any trainer/ inmate ever purposely hurt one of our dogs? NO! Would one of the instructors that monitored the training process ever allow this to happen? NO! Did every dog that entered the program come out a well rounded, ready for adoption, socialized candidate? NOPE, but almost every dog did, and it made all the hard work worth it.
The PETS program at Allen/ Oakwood was one of the best prison training programs ever. The instructors were extremely knowledgeable and no handler/ inmate ever felt bad about asking questions. Hands on training with the handlers and their dogs occurred every week. They were tested on what they had learned — both the handlers and the dogs. Many dogs graduated with a Canine Good Citizen Certification. The HSSCC was very proud to be a part of the program. Many dogs escaped the fate of euthanasia because of this program, and many dogs were spared being returned to a shelter because they weren’t housebroken or because they were afraid. This alone speaks more than any words I can write on paper.
I left the HSSCC and started my own SPCA after years of working with the PETS program. I was unable to be a part of the program after that because the program was already at capacity but I still supported their efforts in saving lives.
Something horrible happened at another prison. Was the inmate screened properly before being allowed to participate in the program? Was the program monitored as closely as the PETS program? Who knows. There are bad apples out free on the streets too ….I should know, I am the one that has to investigate and prosecute these people more often than I would like to share with the public.
It’s a shame that so many dogs that cannot pass a temperament test in shelters with tiny budgets and from rural communities, may very well die without a program like this. It’s a shame that the people that have dedicated years of their lives to this program and have made such a difference in the lives of the dogs and the inmates would have to tolerate being called anything other than heroes!