"For the Love of Dogs" September column
May 14, 2004
By Kyra Kirkwood
In Virginia, the forgotten dogs of society are matched with the forgotten people in a life-affirming partnership of hope and purpose.
The Save Our Shelters Pen Pals dog-training program places death-row canines from area shelters with inmates at select correctional centers for an intensive eight-week training session. These last-chance dogs are taught every aspect of obedience, even Canine Good Citizen certification, from the inmates who assume loving responsibility for them, 24 hours a day. Upon completion, the dogs are adopted to qualified homes as burly, oft-tattooed inmates bid a tearful goodbye to their star pupils.
Seen nationally on Animal Planet's "Cell Dog" television show, the SOS Pen Pals program, which began three years ago as a way to reduce the state's euthanasia rate while helping the community, has bestowed second chances upon 200 previously unwanted dogs.
"[Adopters] are saving two lives: the life of the animal and the life of the handler," says Catherine Leach, the program's executive director. "Many of these dogs have been snatched from the jaws of death. They need that little something to set them apart, and this training program does that."
Pen Pals, run by Leach and assistant director Maureen Bergin, has changed the lives of all involved. The dogs open up communication between inmates and officers, tensions drop throughout the general population, the sense of pride and accomplishment helps inmates find career paths after they're paroled.
"[And] it's helped me realize that prisoners are people, too," says Leach, a mother of two. "They have a lot of love to give. This program has brought a lot of joy into a rather dismal existence. It adds a touch of home to an otherwise sterile, hostile environment."
"For our inmates, it's like a mission in life—they want to save these dogs' lives," says Bergin, who bails out five shelter dogs every six weeks. "They put a lot of themselves in these animals."
Jay Earney III, an inmate at the James River Correctional Center in State Farm, Va., is one of the program's star handlers and mentors.
"Pen Pals has allowed me the opportunity to discover that I can be compassionate without being weak," he says, hoping to work with dogs for the rest of his life. "Something I did helped improve the quality of life for others. This will inspire me forever."
The lasting effect Pen Pals has on the handlers is remarkable, say Leach and Bergin. Even the meanest-looking inmates tear up when their dogs graduate, and beam with pride when they accomplish a task.
"It' brings out a side you don't really see," says Bergin. "They all have it in them, but this is the way for them to express it."
To start a program in your community:
• Gather a solid volunteer base.
• Locate a lower-security prison and a rescue-friendly trainer to instruct the inmates. Stay away from facilities with many violent criminals.
• Work with your local shelter and its rescue/volunteer coordinator.
• Make friends with the warden. Show him examples of similar programs, like Pen Pals. Talk about the show "Cell Dogs."
• Create a game plan. Brainstorm everything, asking and answering potential questions, such as "Who will take the dogs to the vet at 2 a.m.?" and "What kind of program do I envision?"
• Commit to doing most of the work yourself, because the correctional officers can't.
• Realize it's going to be a lot harder than traditional rescue work, but more rewarding, says Bergin.
• Call SOS Pen Pals for help: 804-358-7499 ext. 4, www.sos-penpals.org.
Due to the amazing success experienced at the James River Correctional Center since the program began in May 2001, three other facilities have joined the program: Buckingham Correctional Center, Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women and the Botetourt Correctional Unit.