Pups on Parole shows that saving grace can come from the hands of an inmate
Benny hasn’t had a walk this morning. He’s restless on the floor of the fire station dispatch room, gnawing a bit on his leash. A bright orange pant leg comes into his view. He reaches for it, lightly nipping.
“Aww, Benny,” says his handler, Mark Roberts, as he rubs the dog’s belly. Benny’s pink tongue flops out with abandon.
The white border collie mix is POP dog No. 1—the first dog entered into the Pups on Parole program within the California Correction Center in Susanville, about 100 miles northeast of Chico. The program pairs stray dogs bound for euthanasia with inmates, who train them to become more adoptable.
Barking is heard outside the prison’s fire station as four more dogs enter with nine men. The animals bounce on each other, lightly wrestle and playfully growl.
There’s Woody, a fluffy Pomeranian; Sadie May, a quiet Australian cattle dog and English setter mix with big doe eyes; Penny, a skittish but sweet Rhodesian ridgeback mix, whose year living in a barn before entering POP seems to have traumatized her; and Abel, an agreeable terrier mix with gray fur and large eyebrows.
The men are firefighters, dog trainers and felons. The dogs are getting what the
men here hope they’ll have—a second chance.
There are no slamming, barred-iron doors at this prison facility. The inmates are white-collar criminals, with no history of violence. They’re here because of a robbery, drugs or a combination of the two.
They sleep on cots in a barracks-like room with their assigned dogs in crates beside their beds at night. They’re part of a fire response unit for CCC, High Desert State Prison, and Lassen County, their days are relatively busy, and they feel useful. Being dog trainers is a bonus. Two men are assigned to each dog in case one guy has to go out on a fire call.
Tattoos poke out from under white, long-sleeved T-shirts. The men’s standard-issue orange pants remind them where they are—despite having a firefighting job and a dog to come home to. Their hair is short, their faces newly shaven.
Leonard Pippin, hair slicked back, sunglasses atop his head, is petting Woody, who’s the color of roasted marshmallows. Woody is a gorgeous dog, and one would think he’d have been easy to adopt out. But he’s a little frou-frou, slightly yappy—not a type that generally appeals to the more rural area of Susanville.
Pippin tells Woody to sit, lie down and roll over. Woody obeys, and Pippin scoops him up, kissing his little head.
“It’s hard when you get into prison, where you get no love at all, and then you get in the position of having unconditional love—that’s what these dogs do,” said Garth Renaud, coordinator for Pups on Parole at the prison. “It’s softened some demeanors here.”
Pups on Parole takes dogs that likely would not be adopted otherwise—they may not be as attractive as other dogs, or they have behavior issues—and turns them into worthy pets who know basic commands and are well-socialized. Their trainers are inmates with the time and sensitivity available to devote to the dogs.
The prisoners get a new skill, a new companion and a sense of contribution to the world, while the dogs get a new chance at a life in a home with an owner who loves them. If not for this program, these animals would all be dead.
“Three of the [first dogs to come to POP] were destined to die the day after they came here, and they’ve all been adopted,” said Renaud, an affable man with a ruddy complexion. “How cool is that?”
Pups on Parole started in Lassen County in late June. There are five dogs at any given time, with a new dog entering as others are adopted out. Each dog is paired with a primary trainer and a handler. Training takes about six weeks, during which time the dog learns basic commands, such as sit, stay, come, lie down, roll over, how to walk and generally be well-behaved.
A certified trainer works with the inmates—training them to train the dogs. The ultimate goal is that the inmates will train each other how to work with the dogs, with occasional consultations from an outside trainer. Though assigned to a primary trainer, all five dogs interact with all 10 men, as well as with each other, learning how to socialize with people and with other animals.
The Humane Society supplies the food and the crates. The group makes sure to spay or neuter the dogs, as well as have them microchipped, before they enter the program. The prison provides the spacious kennels (where the dogs spend their time when the inmates are eating), dog houses, and of course, the labor. Adoption fees are $150.
The POP program in Lassen was modeled after one at San Quentin with the Marin Humane Society, but the program has been enacted at prisons nationwide.
The Humane Society approached CCC Warden Kathy Prosper with the Pups on Parole idea in an effort to decrease the high euthanasia rates taking place in Lassen County. The Lassen Humane Society doesn’t have a facility—no-kill or otherwise—so other than some animal foster homes, the place for stray dogs is the Lassen County Animal Control Shelter.
“It’s a county shelter,” said Shannon Staiger, who retired at age 35 from Silicon Valley and now volunteers about 25 hours a week as event coordinator at Lassen Humane Society. “But when they get overcrowded, they have to make selections.”
The smell of animal urine and dog food mixes with the sounds of barking as Lassen County Animal Control Supervisor Judy Walesch swings open the door to the shelter’s main corridor. Within small, divided sections of chain-link fence awaits a range of begging, pitiful dogs—pit bulls, German shepherds, Labrador mixes. Their eyes are heartbreaking. Some look like they’ve been well-cared for and perhaps got lost somewhere. Others look hopeless.
A small, black Lab mix just came in. She’s been sprayed by a skunk and looks terrified. By the gray around the dog’s mouth, Walesch estimates her age at about 5 years old—a maturity that will reduce her chances of adoption.
“The public is looking for ready-made pets,” she said. “Those are the ones that stay in homes.”
Walesch took on her job because she loves animals. She’s even bottle-feeding a wounded chipmunk in her office. But space is tight at the shelter, and she has to decide which dogs will live and which will die. She often administers the fatal injection.
Nine hundred dogs were impounded at the Lassen County Animal Shelter in 2005, the latest year for which information is available. More than half were euthanized.
Listings on Petfinder.com have increased adoption rates, says Walesch. The shelter also recently increased its size—from housing 10 dogs in one old building to housing 30 indoors and outdoors (17 of which are from cruelty court cases). Still, too many good pets have been going to waste.
“Now with the Pups on Parole program, some of those dogs can go there rather than be euthanized,” said Walesch.
As each new dog comes into Pups on Parole, he or she is a little shy—some a bit scared, others wily and anxious. In only two weeks with the program, they’re not perfect angels, but they’ve gained a little weight, their coats look better, and their manner has significantly changed.
On one end of the spectrum is Benny, the hyper, 10-month-old border collie mix who’s become a firehouse favorite. He jumps, he nips, he barks when you get in his territory, and yet he’s got a great personality.
Then there’s Penny, whose former life in a barn is somewhat of a mystery, but she seems to have been either abused or severely isolated. Maybe both. When she first came to the prison for POP, she’d go in a corner and curl up in a ball. Now, Penny is still shy. She jumps at sudden noises and looks fearful. But her tail wags more when she’s approached, and she lets people pet her. Before, she’d have shied away.
“You wouldn’t have been able to touch this dog when she first came here,” said inmate Jay Stracner.
Renaud says Penny would make a great dog for an older couple. “She just wants some loving,” he said.
The other dogs have similar stories—they came in shy, scared, not quite trusting and not obeying. Then, through attention, affection and discipline, they gradually opened up.
Ralph Forzan, Benny’s trainer, who’s also well-acquainted with Penny, says the key to good dog training isn’t too complicated: “Just a lot of love and attention—that’s all they’re looking for. In the past, they didn’t get that, or they’d been abused. That’s what I thought with Penny. But as soon as she learned we weren’t going to hurt her, she opened right up.”
Having the dogs around opened the men up, too.
“We, as a group, communicate better with the dogs around,” said Roberts. “They’ve shown our vulnerability. People who didn’t want the dogs around at first [there are five other inmates at the firehouse who aren’t part of POP] are always coming around now. That’s showed me a lot of character I didn’t know was there.”
“Everybody’s gotten a bit closer,” said Don Allen, Sadie May’s trainer. “People who didn’t want the dogs at first, you catch them feeding them treats.”
Two weeks later, Benny, Abel and Sadie May have interested some prospective owners. Sadie May and Abel still have a couple weeks of training left to complete, but one woman brought a doggie bed for Abel—a good sign she’ll be taking him home.
Forzan is in the dispatch room, Benny at his side. Benny is calmer today, having had a morning run. When someone came to look at Benny the other day, the inmates were honest—perhaps a little too honest, making sure the interested people knew not to hold their valuables too dear if Benny is in the house, as he’s liable to destroy some of them.
“If I knew exactly what my situation would be when I parole, I’d take him with me myself,” said Forzan, who paroles on Oct. 25.
Forzan, 37, has been on the prison’s fire crew for two years, and he has his Firefighter 1 and haz-mat certifications through the state. He’s applying to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, hoping to get on a crew near Riverside, where he’s from. But there’s a young son in the mix in Arizona, so Forzan is not sure where he’ll end up.
He’s been in the prison system four years for second-degree robbery. He robbed a bank, saying he’d become spoiled and was used to living a certain lifestyle he couldn’t afford.
“Legitimate legal employment is a priority for me,” he said.
“He’ll do OK,” said Renaud. “Some of these guys screw up, usually with ingesting substances, others do stupid things and get before an intense judge. Others just get in the cycle.” He estimates that 80 to 90 percent of the prisoners’ crimes are drug-related.
Renaud says that, despite their best intentions, many prisoners who seem rehabilitated and get paroled end up returning to the same friends and environments that led them into crime. He’s cautiously hopeful for the guys at this facility, saying he thinks prisoners at a place like this—with fresh air, positive work and busy bodies—have a better chance at avoiding recidivism than most.
“But you can’t inject rehabilitation,” he says.
That’s why, while it’d be nice to say the prisoners save the dogs and the dogs save the prisoners, that’s a little too Disney for real life. While the inmates seem to benefit from the program, Pups on Parole’s main focus is on the dogs.
“Dogs don’t have a choice,” said Renaud. “Inmates do.”
The program seems to be working. At the time of publication, Benny had been adopted by a couple in Santa Cruz, who saw his profile (a truthful one, including something about high energy) on Petfinder.com. Sadie May and Abel had also been adopted.
Overall, since the program started in June, 7 of 12 dogs—nearly 60 percent—have been adopted.
As for the inmates, they say it’s easy to get attached to the animals and hard to let them go, but they knew what they were in for. And for every dog that’s adopted, a new one comes in.
“We love it,” said Stracner. “As firefighters, we’re already trying to save people’s lives and homes, and now, to extend that to these animals—you gave someone another chance.”