Second chances for the two- and four-legged

Dogs that no one wants are getting a second chance when they are trained by incarcerated inmates at Lakeland Correctional Facility. The trainers teach dogs what they need to know to find a home. 
When the Lakeland Correctional Facility door opened, Jesse stood for a moment taking it all in: the blue sky, the fresh air, the road ahead. He wanted to run and run and run, until his lungs near burst with exertion. Sure, he was still on probation, but life was an adventure waiting.

Jesse is a dog--a boxer. About a year-and-a-half in age, he is large, weighing in at 63 pounds, and still full of puppy exuberance. Jesse is a graduate of the Refurbished Pets of Southern Michigan, or RPSM, a nonprofit correctional companion program that pairs homeless, abandoned or unwanted dogs with inmates at the Lakeland Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in Coldwater, Mich.

The dogs live with the inmates inside the prison for 10 weeks as the inmates retrain them to become exceptional, well-mannered pets, ready for adoption.

When Carol and Jim Derks of Kalamazoo picked up their new dog, he came with a letter. The letter was written by one of the two inmates who had worked with Jesse for 10 weeks. It was addressed to Jesse’s new owners, and it was full of affection:

“Jesse is great. You couldn’t ask for a better companion. He loves attention and he loves to include you in his activities. For example, if you give him a squeaky toy, rather than go off by himself to play, he’ll bring the toy to you and put it in your lap as if to say, 'Play with me.' Be on the lookout for his array of facial expressions. Once you see them, you will be laughing your heart out … Jesse will surely be missed by all of us at Lakeland, and he will remain in our hearts long after he’s gone. We hope you enjoy the newest addition to your family. God bless!”

The two-page letter describes in detail Jesse's favorite activities, his eating and sleeping habits and various idiosyncrasies, his learning experiences and amusing misadventures. Another two pages attached to the letter list detailed explanations of the commands Jesse has been taught: Sit, Down, Stay, Up, Front, Finish, Swing, Stand, Drop It, Heel.

“I found Jesse on a website called Petfinder,” says Jim Derks. “We had two rescue boxers prior to Jesse, but both had died some time ago, and we were ready for a new dog.”

The Derks were taken with what they learned about Jesse online, and they watched a video to learn about the RPSM training program Jesse had just started at that point.

“We loved the photo of Jesse,” the Derks say. “We decided to adopt him on that one photo.”

The Derks decided to fill out the application for Jesse’s adoption. A volunteer from RPSM soon arrived to interview them, to check that their home and lifestyle were right for Jesse, and that the Derks understood how the adoption process worked and would provide a good home for the dog.

“We had to answer a lot of questions,” Jim Derks says.

“I work from home,” Carol Derks adds. She runs a graphic design business called Derks Studio from their residence. “That was helpful, so even though there was another applicant ahead of us to adopt Jesse, we were chosen first.”

The Derks were sent weekly updates from the inmates about Jesse’s progress in training, and after they picked Jesse up at his foster home in Constantine upon his graduation from the program, Jesse was still on a period of probation to ensure both he and his new family adjusted well to his new life.

Keeping a close eye on dog adoptions, Sharon Albright is an RPSM volunteer and member of their board of trustees. She jokingly considers herself a “foster failure.”

“That’s what we call foster parents who fall in love with their foster pets and keep the dogs themselves.” She laughs. She has failed as a foster parent once with an RPSM dog and twice with two other rescue dogs.

The RPSM program, Albright says, was founded in 2007 to help cut down on euthanasia rates in area animal shelters. By 2008, the companion program with the prison was in place, run entirely on donations and costing approximately $285 per dog for the training program.

“By now, we’ve saved about 500 dogs,” she says, and while the rehabilitative value to the inmates is harder to measure, “We have a long waiting list of inmates who want to be involved with the program. These are people who are considered by many as throwaway people, just like these dogs. We’ve received heart-wrenching letters from many inmates, telling us what the program means to them.”

With 28 inmates currently working with the dogs, two per dog, the RPSM program is a highlight at the prison facility. Inmates and dogs live together throughout training in a barracks-style room.

“Trainers only live in this area,” Albright says. “But other inmates get to meet the dogs, too. The dogs wear bright yellow vests for their first two weeks of training, usually muzzled, so everyone knows they are still getting acclimated.”

Dogs chosen to participate, Albright says, are usually 6 months old or older and of larger sizes. They usually come from the local animal shelter or brought in by animal control.

“We watch them closely for signs of aggression, and we choose dogs who show a pleasant personality.”

Jesse, for instance, says Albright, had been turned in to a shelter because he was “too much dog.” His trainers worked to calm his hyperactivity and teach him to obey his owner’s commands.
“Inmates in this program have to earn their right to participate, too,” she says. “They can’t be convicted of a violent crime, have no abusive behavior in their history, and have gone a year without any infractions in prison.”

A graduation ceremony is held for both dogs and inmates, says Albright. “All the trainers receive a certificate with the dog’s photo on it. It really means a lot to them. They see the dog learn new behavior and earn freedom.”

At least two inmates, Albright recalls, earned their freedom at the same time that their dogs did. Both dogs and trainers went home together.  

Inmates and volunteers all work to put together fundraisers to raise the funds needed to run the RPSM program. RPSM sells items, for instance, some of which are made by prisoners, to raise funds on eBay or to sell at local festivals or rummage sales.

“The RPSM program has been very successful for both animals and people,” Albright says. “We are working to save as many dogs and inmates as we can, rehabilitating both. We’ve had a couple prison guards adopt dogs, too. It’s hard not to fall in love with these dogs.”

To see inmates discuss what the program means to them, click here and here

Zinta Aistars is creative director for Z Word, LLC, and correspondent for WMUK 102.1 FM Arts and More program. She lives on a farm in Hopkins.

Photos by Susan Andress.
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