A new program at a prison in Chippewa County is giving a second chance to some homeless dogs and a group of inmates. This special program is an obedience class that lets the dogs and their handlers learn from each other. This may be one of the most unlikely pet-placement programs ever conceived.None of the dogs had prior training and little in the way of manners. They were considered unlikely to ever be adopted. They were trained by men who, at least in some cases, are unlikely ever to be released. For 12 weeks the dogs lived with prison inmates at the Kinross facility in the UP.
Tracker, an 8-year-old hound who’d spent most of his life outside before finding his way to the county animal shelter. In October when the inmates met their dogs for the first time, Tracker made straight for the 2 oldest inmates. He was partnered with them in the program to learn how to be a house pet in his golden years. Tony Hill, 60, of Sherlock, was one of those 2 inmates. “It does people good when they can walk up on the yard and pet a dog. Makes their day. Gives them something nice to say. Keith and I are a testament that old dogs can learn new tricks. Oh yeah, and Tracker learned a couple, too,” Hill said.
200 inmates applied to take part in this program; 8 were chosen. Inmates with a background of animal or domestic abuse were not eligible to apply. Two inmates were assigned to each dog for 12 weeks. The dogs lived with the men 24 hours a day. Tajuan Ray, of Saginaw helped train Chuckie, a 14-month-old Staffordshire terrier/German shepherd mix.“I just wanted to say that to be a part of this program is amazing. I’ve been incarcerated since the age of 15 and I didn’t think anything like this was possible. For some good to come into a person’s life and just change them. And, just coming into the program, my blues have come off, I feel like a human being again,” Ray said.
Coordinators say the program has not only benefited the dogs, but the inmates, too. Deputy Warden Kathy Olson credits the overall improved mood of the prison now that inmates and staff alike have something positive to focus on. “We had a meeting with custody staff. And actually, we asked why the assaults were down and they brought up the fact that the dogs have had a calming effect on the facility,” Olson said.
For them, this was the first time they had pet a dog in some 30 years. Dell Konieczko of California entered the prison system when he was 17. He is now 52. He was emotional as he talked about Pepper, the 8-month-old dog he helped train. “She had a rough start to life, She was starving on the streets. I’m just glad I was able to help to whatever degree I was, because there comes a point in life where you gotta live it, whether it’s in here and you’re never getting out, or whether you’re out there; you have to live. And I’d sit and watch TV and see the Sandy disaster, Katrina, the Missouri river flooding, the Mississippi river flooding, and people are volunteering and helping. And I just sit there and say ‘what a waste, I could be doing something to help.’ And when this program came to this prison it was like, it was a Godsend, really. I’m not that religious but it was a Godsend. Just to be able to help her and future dogs, you know. She’s just a lovable, super super kind outgoing friendly spirit and just to be able to put her in a home to where she’s going to enjoy life – it means the world, it means the world to me,” Konieczko said.
The graduation was quite an emotional for some of the inmates and staff, who have bonded with the animals. This was the last time the men will see these dogs.
Denise Peller is program coordinator for the prison.“One of the handlers made a comment halfway through that he’s been locked up most of his life. And he kind of was concerned about the fact that he didn’t know if he could care for anything anymore, because most of his time was spent behind bars. So he said this has been an amazing thing for me because I finally realized I can still care for something. I mean, these guys would honestly give up their own life for the protection of their dogs. It’s completely changed the whole facility,” Peller explained.
Three of the four dogs were taken back to the shelter after graduation to await their new owners. The fourth went home straight from the graduation. Flip met his new owner, Michelle Hoey, of Pickford, who works at the prison. Hoey fell in love with Flip and adopted him before the training was complete. “I have everything set up. We have a kennel, we have his blankets, we have his dishes and I have a 13-year-old Jack Russell Terrier that’s awaiting his arrival also. So we have another dog,” Hoey said.
Now that the graduates are moving on, four more dogs were assigned this week to the same inmate handlers. They say they have been keeping careful notes on their methods in an effort to improve. Coordinators say this program is a stunning success for both the dogs and for the inmates.
Click this link for more information on the prison dog program www.makingpawsitivechanges.org