When a companion animal ends up in a public shelter, they are unknowingly entering a fight for their life. It does not matter how cute, sweet, or friendly they may be. The truth is, animals enter the shelter system at an alarming rate, and unfortunately their status as a “shelter animal” leaves them with few options, including:
• Be adopted by a person visiting the shelter.
• Reunite with their owner if they were lost and had proper identification, such as microchip and tags.
• Be seen and get saved by a rescue organization.
• Face euthanasia after a certain period.
A shelter pet has no control over which of these options will be their fate, nor do they have a voice or the ability to advocate for themselves. So, the weight of getting them out alive falls on compassionate shelter staff, volunteers, and rescue organizations. With shelters at their maximum capacity nearly every day, an animal has limited time for a lifeline to come through.
The population of dogs that finds themselves most vulnerable are large dogs. But any pet who may exhibit signs of behavior challenges, chronic illness, age, or other higher needs, is also at risk of being overlooked. And despite public education and awareness efforts around pit bull type dogs and other similar breeds, they too languish the longest, living their days at the shelter in risk.
Paws for Life K9 Rescue (PFL) Founder, Alex Tonner, was a volunteer who witnessed first-hand dogs being overlooked for behavior and breed misconceptions. She quickly realized that on any given day, there were not enough foster homes and other temporary housing solutions were needed. Thinking outside the box, she approached the Lancaster prison to see how feasible it would be to temporarily house shelter dogs in the prison. The relationship would be reciprocal, in that the prison had space for the dogs, who could bring a bit of humanity and joy to the people serving time, and the lives of those shelter dogs would be spared. The prison welcomed her idea, and dogs began leaving the shelter and entering the prison to live temporarily until they could be adopted.
A corrections officer noticed the positive impact the onsite dogs was having on the men inside the Honor Yard. He suggested to Alex that they develop a Dog Training Program, utilizing the men to train the dogs onsite. From there the program took flight and has become a lifeline not only for the shelter dogs, but for the men who reside within the prison as well.
Alex will admit that, in the beginning, her primary goal was saving dogs, but that it did not take long to see that benefits of the program were twofold, filling a deep void in both the shelter dogs and the incarcerated persons. These two groups, often judged by society as easily discarded, were now proving that there was life and purpose inside them both.
Both trainer and dog have a story that got them to the program, and this connection helps forge their bond. Through mutual trust and respect, both begin to realize their own resiliency and capacity to live with purpose and joy.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
Dogs who have been at an LA Animal Services shelter for 9 months or longer qualify for the 6-week prison program.
To apply for the Trainer Program, each person is required to have zero disciplinary actions against them for at least two years and those who have been sentenced for child or animal abuse are excluded. Participating in the program has become an opportunity none of the prisoners wants to lose.
Dogs are matched with a trainer for a 6-week period, during which they participate in a curriculum that includes playgroups, on-leash training, and obedience skills. At the end of the training period, the trainer creates an assessment report for the dog’s family, or if the dog is still awaiting a family, the assessment report will accompany them to a foster home or to the Innovation Center, where it will be given to their future family. While this seems like a simple act, the experience is powerful. Graduation day for the dogs and returning them to their families, fosters, or Center staff, is an impactful and emotional moment, symbolizing the purpose, progress, and power of unconditional love the program embodies.
BY THE NUMBERS
As of March 2023—
• More than 1,000 dogs have entered the program and gone on to adoptive homes.
• More than 200 incarcerated persons have been enrolled in the program.
• Sentences for 39 incarcerated men were commuted due in part to their participation in the program.
• The training program has expanded into 7 facilities, including Juvenile Hall.
Dogs that go through the program are welcome back if issues arise or a refresher training course is needed. For the dog trainers, the growing program offers advancement pathways and leadership roles within the program structure. The men who have received commuted sentences have gone on to work as dog trainers, shelter employees, become business owners, and much more.
Paws for Life K9 Prison Training program is forging a new model of rehabilitation for shelter dogs and system-impacted persons. The program continues to build a bridge of awareness by challenging societal perceptions through compassionate action and spotlighting the true healing power of the human-