Inmates & shelter dogs rescue each other

Inmates & shelter dogs rescue each other

Most people who are incarcerated will eventually be released back into society, so helping them to develop more empathy, patience, and a capacity to care for others seems like a no-brainer. But how do we do this? Well, working with dogs has been shown to accomplish all of the above.

Marley’s Mutts is a nonprofit organization dedicated to saving the lives of Kern County, California’s shelter animals. We spoke with Executive Director Melissa Brunson about its comprehensive canine-inmate training program - Pawsitive Change. This program was created in 2016 in response to two societal needs: “Reform when it comes to animal wellness and reform when it comes to how we work with our incarcerated population.”

How does Pawsitive Change work? At any given time, Marley’s Mutts is running five or six Pawsitive Change programs with men’s, women’s, and juvenile facilities. Currently, all of them are in California, but the organization is exploring expanding into other states. All inmates and dogs go through the same 10 to 14-week-long curriculum. 

Interested inmates must apply and interview to be a part of Pawsitive Change, and then must go through a two-week orientation before the program starts. At the same time, Marley’s Mutts pulls euthanasia-listed dogs from local shelters and brings them to the organization’s Rescue Ranch outside of Tehachapi, California, where their temperaments are assessed and dogs are selected to be a part of Pawsitive Change. Each dog is assigned to an inmate team and they get to training - together.

“We have very strict rules around what the inmates can and cannot do with the dogs, how they train them, and housing them,” Melissa says. For example, the dogs need to be in their airline crates at night, not in cells with inmates. And while the temptation to give Pawsitive Change pups commissary hot dogs is very real, inmates are expected to feed their dogs according to a specific diet. Everyone who lives in the units with the dogs agrees to follow the same set of rules.

All dogs and inmates that graduate from Pawsitive Change complete the AKC Canine Good Citizen (CGC) program, which is a training framework that empowers dogs to become “polite members of society.” The CGC program includes 10 skills, from politely greeting strangers and walking on a loose leash to coming when called and maintaining their good behavior when left with trusted humans. These 10 skills are trained and mastered as part of Pawsitive Change.

This valuable experience gives inmates a leg up in the workforce when they’re released. Upon graduation, the dogs are eligible to become CGC certified with their new owners once they’re adopted. This training also makes the dogs more marketable, though the inmates’ families are always given the chance to adopt them first. Melissa estimates that about 70 percent of Pawsitive Change pups are adopted immediately after they graduate - by people all over the country, and some even end up as service dogs.

There’s plenty of research showing the positive impact of prison-based dog-training programs (PBDPs) like Pawsitive Change. According to Assistance Dogs International, “engagement in dog training initiatives increases self-esteem, reduces recidivism rates, and enhances interpersonal skills among incarcerated individuals. The responsibility of nurturing and training [a dog] imbues them with purpose, discipline, and transferable life skills that are relevant even outside the correctional environment.” PBDPs have even been linked with lower stress and better behavior among inmates.

Seven years in, nearly every single person who has gone through the Pawsitive Change program and been released from prison has stayed out of prison. This makes Pawsitive Change’s recidivism rate well below the national average of 44 percent in 2023.

“The human-animal bond is an important one,” Melissa says. “That bond can get people through depression, anxiety, and PTSD. It can also help teach people who live in an environment that is innately violent - or people who have been violent offenders and have had to take things by force - to be more empathetic, to be more compassionate, and to really step outside of themselves to help better their communities, as well. So, I think that’s a really important part of what we do, not just with Pawsitive Change, but in general.”

This is part of the reason that Pawsitive Change trainers work with inmates on using positive reinforcement techniques when training dogs, even tailoring rewards to individual dogs’ preferences for food, praise, play, etc. “It requires you to be patient and it requires you to not force the dog to do something it doesn’t want to do,” Melissa explains. “And it requires you to really try and be creative. [One of our Pawsitive Change inmates] said, ‘That’s what we’re used to; we’re used to forcibly taking things, which is why we landed here, but in learning to train dogs, we can’t do that.’”

Pawsitive Change poetically pairs “unrescuable” dogs with “unredeemable” humans and proves that neither of those descriptions is really true at all. 

If you feel inspired by what Marley’s Mutts and its Pawsitive Change program are doing, consider volunteering, donating what you can, or simply helping their posts reach more people. “The people that have $5 a month [and] donate as a recurring donor… are just as valuable to us as [those] who give us large sums of money,” Melissa explains. “And everybody has the capability to share information on social media - and that’s free.”