Beyond the Bars - Second Chances for Pets and People

Beyond the Bars - Second Chances for Pets and People

By Kathy Hosler

One of the most unique pet care facilities in the world is located in Gig Harbor, Washington. Like many other facilities, it offers boarding, training, and grooming services for its clients – but, that is just the beginning of what the Prison Pet Partnership does. This program has been changing the lives of both humans and animals ever since its inception. The Prison Pet Partnership is located on the grounds of the Washington Corrections Center for Women. It was the first prison program of its kind ever created, and it has had astounding success.

The Prison Pet Partnership teaches the inmates how to groom, train, and board dogs and then helps them transition back into the community with these skills. Rachel Keeler, the Vocational Education Program Manager, beams with pride as she describes the program and how it has changed the lives of its participants.

“The Prison Pet Partnership was founded in 1981 by a Dominican nun named Sister Pauline Quinn,” says Ms. Keeler. “Sister Pauline was abused and traumatized throughout her childhood, and was in and out of foster care and institutions. The abuse left Sister Pauline with deep-seated mental and physical scars.

“As a young adult, Sister Pauline met a German Shepherd named Joni who changed the Sister’s life. Sister Pauline’s experiences with Joni solidified her beliefs that animals can heal people, and that is where her journey of hope began,” Ms. Keeler continues. “Eventually, Sister Pauline was able to start the Prison Pet Partnership with its mission being to help the women inmates, the pets selected for the training programs, the recipients of the trained dogs, and the community as a whole.”

One of the main objectives of their program is to provide training for two types of service dogs – seizure response dogs and mobility dogs. Every dog that enters their training program comes from a shelter or a rescue group. Instead of being destroyed, these unwanted and unloved dogs get a second chance for a happy life.

A lot of the women inmates can identify with the dogs, who are often thought of as ‘throwaway’ dogs or outcasts. When the dogs come in, each one is assigned to an inmate and they are with that person 24/7. Working with the dogs allows the women offenders to work on their own anger management issues, their self-esteem, and helps them learn things like how to communicate effectively.

Grace Van Dyke, the Service Dog Program Manager, is a graduate of the Bonnie Bergin Assistance Dog Institute in Santa Rosa, California. Ms. Van Dyke has a background in training dogs and training people. In Ms. Van Dyke’s Service Dog Program, the women offenders receive continuous education. They go to classes, speakers are brought in, and they see demonstrations. They start by learning how to teach basic obedience to the dogs. As they advance, they learn how to train the service dogs.

The seizure response dogs are trained to press alarms, get medicine, get a telephone, retrieve someone else in the house, roll a person over so that they don’t aspirate after a seizure, lick a person’s face to help after a seizure, and much more.

Mobility dogs work with people who are confined to wheelchairs or who use walkers, a cane, or other stability devices. These dogs are trained to open doors, turn on lights, pick up dropped items, pull off socks, and generally help the person with everyday life. If they are working with someone who can walk, these dogs are trained to wear a harness and become almost like a ‘walking cane’ to assist that person.

All of the dogs that are brought into the program begin by being taught the basic obedience skills. As the dogs progress through their training, not all of them are suited to be service dogs. Those that do not meet the qualifications to become service dogs may be considered for a therapy placement. For example, the dog may be perfect for a soldier who has PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) or for a child that has autism. The remaining dogs, known as ‘Paroled Pets,’ will be trained as companion animals and will be adopted out to loving families.

Rehabilitating cats is also part of the PPP program. The program accepts cats that come from rescues like the Harbor Hope Cat Rescue that is run by Laura Carlson. The cats need some kind of work, such as socialization to make them more adoptable. They enter the program and live with the women who give them lots of TLC and work with them until they are ready for adoption.

The Prison Pet Partnership has an award winning boarding kennel on the prison grounds. It was built in 1996. They have twenty-eight all indoor runs for boarding dogs and twelve enclosures for cats. Weekends are always full at the kennel, and reservations for holidays are often booked up six months in advance.

The women offenders in the program learn how to work in a kennel. They learn the proper way to clean the kennels and the equipment, feeding the boarders, how to exercise the dogs, and more. They also learn the management side by doing office work like filing, taking reservations, and interacting with clients. The Prison Pet Partnership Kennel was rated by Consumer Checkbooks as one of the top three kennels in the Northwest.

There is also a topnotch grooming department in the PPP program. At the present time they have six full-time groomers. Ruth Bloch, a groomer with forty years of experience, is the instructor. The women begin their training as bather/brushers. Then they learn to do breed specific grooms. Many of them become IPG (International Professional Groomer) certified. The money that is made from boarding and grooming helps fund their training program.

When the PPP women are ready to be released, they get assistance that extends ‘beyond the bars.’ They get help with writing resumes and learning interviewing skills. Any of the women who want to further their education by becoming a veterinary technician or pursuing a career anywhere in the pet care field can apply for a PPP scholarship. And, if they get a job as a groomer after they are released, the PPP will supply them with up to $1,000 worth of grooming tools.

The Prison Pet Partnership has been the model for many programs that have followed in its footsteps, and it has received many awards and much recognition for the accomplishments. The 2001 movie “Within These Walls” was based on the story of Sister Pauline Quinn. In 1986, Prison Pet Partnership was one of the finalists for Innovations in State and Local Government and was recognized by the Ford Foundation and the John F. Kennedy School of Business at Harvard University. In 1997, General H. Norman Schwarzkopf came to PPP to host “What’s right in America” for NBC.

The Prison Pet Partnership is a testament to the far reaching effects of Sister Pauline Quinn’s dream and her years of tireless work. It truly changes the lives - and gives second chances to the women offenders, the pets they train, and the people whose lives are enriched by these dogs.

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