Saturday, December 15, 2007
Last year, Melody was just another typical mongrel from Taiwan: sharp features, pointy ears, curly tail. A fat scar around her muzzle looked as if it had been closed with electrical tape, leading her Taiwan rescuers to believe she had been destined to be somebody's entree.
When the 35-pound mutt arrived at the Marin Humane Society, she was frightened, wary and withdrawn, refusing to leave her crate even for food. Today, Melody is thriving as the beloved pet of Dick and Sandy Drew. Their union came about thanks to Pen Pals of San Quentin, an innovative partnership between the Marin Humane Society and San Quentin State Prison.
The program, funded entirely by the humane society, shows inmate handlers how to teach basic obedience skills and make shelter dogs more adoptable. Since 2005, they have helped at least 86 dogs find homes.
The idea for Pen Pals hit Larry Carson, canine behavior evaluator at the society, after he caught an Animal Planet channel show called "Cell Dogs." The award-winning television series profiled inmates in more than 120 prisons throughout the country who care for and train shelter dogs. Immediately, he envisioned a partnership between the humane society and San Quentin prison, and pitched the idea to his colleagues.
They loved it. So the retired Marin County building contractor traveled to Carson City, Nev., to meet with the Nevada Humane Society and the warden of Nevada State Prison. Since their program, Puppies Up for Parole, was introduced three years ago, prison violence has dropped by 30 percent.
"The warden told me this is the greatest program they've ever had," Carson said. "Prisoners build fences based on ethnicity and geography, but introducing the dogs has lowered those fences and given both inmates and staff an excuse to talk to one another. Because of this animal, they're on common ground."
Using the Nevada program as a prototype, Carson approached San Quentin officials, and they were all for it. Well, most were.
"Some staff didn't think the inmates deserved dogs, plus they had security and health concerns," Carson said. "But after the program was in place and they saw the benefits, their resistance melted. Now most are in favor."
Many prisons conducting similar programs do so in the cell blocks, but this isn't feasible at San Quentin because of its age and lack of space. Instead, Pen Pals is limited to the prison firehouse. Located on the prison grounds but not within the walls, the firehouse is staffed by inmate firefighters who are low-risk, low-security prisoners convicted of nonviolent crimes. They are carefully screened for histories of violence and animal abuse, must have a record of good behavior and have enough time remaining on their sentence to complete at least one full year.
"Humane Society staff and volunteers visit every Tuesday and Thursday," Carson said. "We conduct continuous training classes, follow up on each dog's progress and help with any issues the inmates might be facing. We're in constant contact. It's a real team effort."
Each dog lives with its handler, and canine "sentences" vary from a couple of weeks to six months. Recuperating medical fosters, which constitute 60 percent of Pen Pal dogs, often stay longer because they require close care and monitoring.
About 20 percent are shy dogs that need socialization, and the remaining 20 percent are naughty adolescents in need of basic manners. Aggressive dogs are not considered for the program.
Each inmate keeps a daily log that is monitored by humane society trainers. After the dog leaves San Quentin and is adopted, the new owner gets a copy of the log so he or she knows exactly what the dog experienced during its time in prison. Inmates get a binder with a certificate of completion, photos of their dog, plus paperwork and evaluations. As soon as one dog leaves, most inmates get another one the same day, which makes it easier to say goodbye.
"They take their responsibilities very seriously," Carson said. "That's the most positive thing about the program. They don't feel like they're just wasting their time in prison. Adopters often write to the inmates, through me, saying thanks for the work they put into their new dog."
One such dog was Tigre, a hefty brindle greyhound mix who was 20 pounds overweight and in dire need of training. Carson laughs about photos of the dog on the treadmill. "He was there for a month, lost 15 pounds and returned to MHS with a spring in his step."
Shortly thereafter, retired nurse Pat Flyer adopted Tigre. "The program is terrific. They do a wonderful job," she said. "Tigre was very well trained and listens to everything I say. He's the best dog I've ever had."
The Drews, who adopted Melody, agree wholeheartedly. "They gave us her handler's daily log. He wrote about her with deep care and compassion and expressed the desire to take her back if no one adopted her," Sandy Drew said.
"We have this preconceived notion about inmates, but most of them aren't different from people you meet on the streets," Carson mused. "They just made a mistake or exercised poor judgment. Almost everybody inside is going to be outside. It's our job, through programs like this, to make them the best people possible. Animal shelters and prisons are both in the rehabilitation business: We put out good canine citizens and hopefully they put out good human ones."
Pen Pals of San Quentin
The program teaches specially selected inmates how to train and socialize dogs in preparation for adoption. To learn more about the program, go to www.marinhumanesociety.org
E-mail freelance writer Eileen Mitchell at firstname.lastname@example.org. Send your pet concern questions to email@example.com with "Ask the Vet" in the guideline, and each month a guest veterinarian will address a different subject. "Ask the Vet" is for informational purposes only. Readers should not act on information seen in this column without seeking professional veterinary advice.