Imagine a program that not only rescues dogs from shelters, but also changes the lives of those who help do the rescuing. That’s the inspiring goal of the PAW Program (Pups and Wards), which is part of the non-profit organization Pathways to Hope, replicating the success of prison dog programs at juvenile detention centers.
“This has given me a great opportunity to be responsible, to be determined — and especially to be patient,’’ says Jimmy, proud trainer of rescue dog Princess, graduating on this day at Orange County Juvenile Hall in Orange, Calif.
The program helps detained youths learn skills that set them on a path toward rehabilitation. The dogs for the program are selected from the Orange County Animal Care Center. The teens, age 15 to 18, then spend 10 weeks learning how to train, turning them into dogs certain to be adopted.
What did Jimmy take away from this experience? “It taught me how much I can care about things. That every living thing has feelings. And to take pride in what I do,’’ he says with a smile, glancing over at his newly trained Princess.
How did he come to choose Princess as his dog, I wondered? “I didn’t choose her, she chose me. As soon as the dogs came in she looked around and came right over to me. But at first she was really stubborn,” he says, thinking back to those early days. “It took me two weeks to teach her to Sit.’’ He taught her basic commands, and even how to Shake Hands and Roll Over. “I make her Sit or do a trick before she gets her food,’’ he says. “It’s important that she earns it.’’
This is the fourth graduating class for the program, which started at the juvenile hall in 2009, modeled after similar, successful Pathways to Hope programs at prisons.
The main teacher and guiding force for the juvenile-hall program, Janette Thomas, steps to the front of the room and surveys the graduating wards with their dogs. Normally soft-spoken, she bursts with pride in their accomplishments and can’t help but shout: “You guys rock!”‘
“When we first started training the dogs, there were long faces, and apprehension,” says Janette, executive director of Pathways to Hope, California. “But look at these dogs, and look at what you have done. You will never forget these dogs and this experience. When a dog touches your heart it leaves a pawprint forever.’’
Later she gives a quick update on how the program is progressing. “Now that we have ironed out some of the initial kinks, and staff are more familiar and experienced, our plan is to include a minimum of four dogs in each training cycle, with three to four training cycles per years.”
On this day six wards and three dogs — Ivan and Mark who trained Nike; Jimmy and Gustavo who trained Princess, and Raul and Jordan who trained Furby — are treated to a graduation ceremony and party, attended by a true dog world celebrity: Janette’s mentor, Sister Pauline Quinn, who more than a quarter-century ago came up with the original idea of matching unwanted dogs and prison inmates.
“In 1981 I started the first prison dog program where the inmates rescued unwanted dogs and trained them to help the handicapped or rehomed them to go to loving homes forever,” says Sister Pauline. At her side stands Reni, a Doberman Pinscher, given to her by a breeder in Georgia. When Sister traveled to Argentina to help start prison dog programs there, Reni got to meet his father, a service dog at an Argentine prison. Her other dog, a perky Papillon named Nicki, spent six months being trained at the Indiana State Prison, one of hundreds of such programs she has helped cultivate.
Sister Pauline shares her story and her message with the graduates. “In 1950 I was sitting in a juvenile hall just like this one. I had a hard life when I was young, I was a runaway and I felt like life was hopeless. There was a lot of injustice in my life. Then a dog touched my life and I learned about training. Now, all these years later, I come to places where there are broken lives, and I see hope.’’
Her original program, at Washington State Correctional Center for Women, now trains 60 dogs a year, and many of them get advanced training to become Service Dogs and Seizure-Alert Dogs, changing the lives of those who need assistance. Equally important, the prison says that in the past three years 100 percent of the inmates in the program who have been released have found jobs — many through pet industry vocational skills — and the recidivism rate during that time? Zero.
“Now there are prison dog programs all over the United States, Canada and Europe,” says Sister Pauline, who travels the world to kickstart prison dog programs from Italy to South America. After this graduation ceremony, she heads to Alaska to help start a program there. “Those who have committed crimes need to be responsible and learn that there is a better life for them if they want it.”
Stopping recidivism, ending that cycle, is one of the program’s main goals, Janette says. Keeping kids from falling back into the wrong pathway.
Jimmy will soon be placed on probation. How will this experience change him? “I plan to volunteer at a shelter and help train the dogs,’’ he says.
To learn more about Pathways to Hope, see available dogs and find out how you can help, visit www.pathwaystohope.org.