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Inmate Save Dogs from Death and Prepare Them for Adoption
By Associated Press
Published: 03/20/2003


Roxie, Flash, Brody and Abraham Lincoln faced lethal injection or the gas chamber--until they went to prison.
Once there, they became pillars of the canine community, veritable pooches of perfection, under the tutelage of inmate instructors.
Selected inmates at James River Correctional Center, incarcerated for crimes ranging from robbery to malicious wounding, are turning strays and pound dogs into lovable, well-mannered pets that wrap visitors around their paws.
'You're helping save the animals' lives,' said inmate Anthony Orange, 49, who called the 'Pen Pals' program the most satisfying experience he's had during his 10 years behind bars. 'They have been taken off death row.'
The dogs might as well be in dog heaven when they enter the gates at James River.
All their needs are met, including heavy doses of love and attention. So content and secure are the animals that not a single bark was uttered during a two-hour visit with the dogs in rooms of inmates housed in the prison 'Honor Dorm.'
Brody, a confusion of Labrador retriever, corgi and husky ancestry, is so well-trained that he will not eat treats placed on his paws until inmate trainer Jonathan Karmou gives permission.
Brody is something of a dog prodigy, said Catherine Leach, director of Pen Pals for Save Our Shelters, the animal protection group that funds and operates the program at the prison. 'After a week and a half he knew all the commands,' she said.
After eight weeks of instruction for five to six hours a day, all the dogs know the commands, and they are all housebroken. The dogs heel, sit, lie down and stay--with or without a leash.
A simple 'no' from Orange was enough to stop Roxie from wandering into the hall. The lab-shepherd mix dutifully made an about-face and went into her crate.
The program, which began in April 2001, is designed to lower the euthanasia rate at public pounds, provide job skills to inmates and teach prisoners respect for life.
Of the 52 'good dogs with bad manners' that have started the program, all have completed it and found homes outside prison, Leach said.
Brody, found tied to a tree, came into prison with a barking problem. 'He was very attention-craving,' said Karmou, 24. 'I get the satisfaction ... of giving them everything they've never had.'
Abraham Lincoln, a dog of uncertain heritage and a Lincoln-like goatee, also had a barking problem. 'Abe whined and barked when he got here,' said trainer Jay Earney, 29. He would tell the dog 'no' after every bark. When Abe stopped barking, Earney would praise him and give him a piece of dog biscuit. Abe soon stopped barking.
Participating inmates, who receive no compensation, provide training that could cost as much as $1,000, Leach said. The inmates must be on honor status to get into the program, which is led by a professional trainer. All expenses, including food, collars and leashes, are picked up by SOS.
Inmates are carefully screened for the program, and there has been no incidence of animal abuse, said Sgt. Howard Blake, who helps run Pen Pals.
James West of Richmond put Pen Pals to good use when he left prison in February 2002 after an 8{-year term. West, who makes his living repairing industrial and automotive radiators, continues to train dogs in his spare time. 'It's a good business on the side,' he said.
'It taught me patience,' West said of his Pen Pals experience. 'You can't force a dog to do anything.' He also said the program 'allowed me to express love and nurturing that I couldn't express in that environment.'
Other inmates also tell of lessons learned from the dogs. 'It makes you be responsible,' said Mark Anderson, the primary handler for Flash, a shepherd-Basset mix. Anderson, 27, has trained five dogs.
Radey Mohammad, who helps Anderson with Flash, appreciates the companionship the program offers. 'You've got a buddy with you in prison you can always trust,' said Mohammad, 29.
Pen Pals, which operates in just a handful of prisons around the country, is offered in Virginia only at James River, but Leach said it may be expanded to three more prisons soon.
Sister Pauline Quinn started one of the first prison dog programs 20 years ago in Washington state. Since then, prison training programs for service dogs have been developed in Wisconsin, California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Missouri and Ohio, she said.
Several states use pound dogs and at least one, Oklahoma, polishes pound dogs' behavior before giving them to the elderly as pets, said Sister Quinn, of Otisfield, Maine.
'I think the program teaches people to become 'other-centered,' thinking of other people, other things than their own pain,' said Sister Quinn, a member of the Dominican Order.
The worst part of the program is when the inmates say goodbye to their charges.
'The dogs get a little fearful,' said Orange, the senior handler among the inmates, who has trained nine dogs. 'They sort of cling to me.' But when they get outside the gate, he said, 'they just prance away' with their new owners.


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