Prison twist: Inmates reform dogs
Toby Young went from watching "Cell Dogs" last year on television to starring in a real-life version in Lansing.
"My favorite show was 'Cell Dogs,' a program Animal Planet has about prison dog programs," said Young, a Piper resident. "I always wanted to do it, and my husband always told me I was crazy."
Ignoring her husband's diagnosis, Young began an animal rescue program she called Safe Harbor in July. She had a small pool of dogs and used foster homes to help care for them. Three weeks after Safe Harbor's launch, Young got a call from Lansing Correctional Facility's Brett Peterson, who wondered if Young would be interested in starting a prison dog program.
Young was delighted.
"I jumped on it because it's been my dream forever," Young recalled. "I put together a proposal that Monday, presented it on Wednesday and on Friday, Aug. 13, we took seven dogs as the beginning of our prison dog program."
For the program, dogs are taken to the prison by Young or one of her two volunteers. Once the animals are installed in the correctional facility, they are assigned a primary handler, who lives with the dog. Some of the rooms are dorm-style rooms and others are larger open areas with 20 to 30 beds. Handlers spend most of the day with the dogs. The animals are at a minimum trained to handle being walked on a leash, basic obedience commands and proper socialization. Some dogs learn specific tricks or behaviors, but all are ready to follow simple commands when adopted.
The program has grown since its small beginning numbers. The seven-dog population has become 72. In fewer than six months, Young said, the program has adopted out 187 dogs.
"It's going like gangbusters here," Peterson, a prison spokesman, said. "I work with the program every day, including weekends. It's really cool."
If Young has her, way the program will expand even further. Right now the program is limited by space, but Safe Harbor is working to build a dog kennel inside the prison so that dogs waiting to go into the program have a safe place to stay with inmates who can walk them and care for them. The kennel also will increase the kinds of dogs Safe Harbor can work with, since it will provide the group with an isolation area for sick dogs, a classroom and training area and a grooming station.
"We plan to have a professional groomer come in and teach a group of inmates how to groom dogs and then certify them as dog groomers," Young said.
She said they also were getting ready to institute a dog-training curriculum that allow inmates to receive dog handler certification in different areas - some would be puppy trainers, others would handle rehabilitating dogs. The group also hopes to have a group of trainers who could train specialty dogs, like animals prone to seizures and those that help people with disabilities.
"We're just getting really big really fast," Young said. "It's lots bigger than I expected. I thought, when they told me maybe we could expand and have 20 dogs, that would be great. Now we have people who are waiting to be dog handlers. That's really surprised me."
It's an impressive operation - Young said the program averaged 11 to 13 adoptions a week. But these aren't the typical cute pet-store advertisement dogs. One of Safe Harbor's major purposes is to rescue dogs that wouldn't otherwise be adopted from animal shelters.
"We've had five blind dogs, three three-legged dogs, six dogs we've treated for heartworms, one dog who required major orthopedic surgery and rehabilitation and we will be getting our second and third litter of puppies with nursing mothers," Young said.
The dogs may not all be pretty, but they are well trained when they leave the program, the other major purpose of Safe Harbor.
Young said that, unlike in a traditional shelter where animals are afforded less time to interact because of smaller staff, dogs in the prison program received an "unbelievable amount" of socialization. She added many dogs also learn tricks like shutting doors and turning off lights. There are obedience classes once a week with an outside trainer, but the handlers hold classes with their dogs every day.
The unusual amount of time the handlers spend with the dogs cuts down tremendously on training time, Young said. It also allows for more patience with animals that otherwise might be left behind or put down.
Chris Lann, a Leavenworth resident who adopted her dog Martha from Safe Harbor, said the best thing about the program dogs was their training.
"With the Safe Harbor program, all dogs are obedience-trained, some are agility-trained, which means they can jump through hoops and things, all dogs are altered," Lann said. "I encourage everybody to consider (Safe Harbor). All the dogs are bathed. (Martha) was the cleanest dog I'd ever seen. Their teeth are taken care of, they're groomed. You get this dog, you go home, you say 'sit,' she sits."
Young said all the dogs were adopted at some point, Safe Harbor volunteers just keep looking for the right families. Many of the families, she added, have been from the Lansing-Leavenworth area.
Funding for the program comes from Safe Harbor, which in turn gets its money from donations and the $150 adoption fee.
Young has gotten dogs from as far away as northern Indiana. The word has gotten out. Shelter owners e-mail Young with news of dogs in their facilities they think would be good for the program.
"I can't say enough good things about Toby and Safe Harbor," said Lansing resident and Safe Harbor dog adopter Amanda Krauss. "Our dog Ginger is a perfect fit for our family, and we love her to death."