2nd Chances

Sometimes 2nd chances come in ways we never expected. For 4 dogs and 8 prison inmates, they found their 2nd chance together.

JoJo, Ginger, Lucy and Skye had no choice about where they ended up. Their paths were chosen for them by people who neglected them, abandoned them or in some cases loved them but let them down anyway. Through no fault of their own, these dogs ended up in animal shelters where they had little hope for adoption. It would not matter that they were young, healthy, loving dogs – all wanting to give and receive affection. The simple truth is that some dogs are passed over by potential adopters because of their size, their color, or their breed. Some become so fearful or stressed in the shelter environment that adopters don’t get to see the dog’s true nature. Whatever the case may be, countless dogs never get the opportunity to show their true colors. For those dogs, a 2nd Chance seems like too much to hope for.

Pablo, Jacob, Enrique, Larry, Dirk, Bruno, Adele, and Bobby are 8 men whose stories I don’t know. Unlike the dogs, they had choices and I suppose they made some bad ones. Those choices landed them in prison where they would pay for their mistakes and – hopefully – prepare for a new path in life. However, just like the shelter dogs, it might not matter if they are rehabilitated or not. The choices they once made, and the label that has earned them, will follow them long after they have paid their debt to society. Finding a job and a home, building relationships and functioning in society, is an uphill battle that causes many to revert back to the life they once knew. For a number of those released, the prison system becomes a revolving door.

Though they’re “behind bars” for vastly different reasons, shelter dogs and inmates face many of the same challenges. Discrimination, fear, and ignorance all too often rule the day when compassion and understanding are sometimes all that is needed to save a life. The statistics on inmate recidivism and dog euthanasia rates across the country are staggering, making it clear that we have a long way to go before innocent dogs and rehabilitated humans are judged for their deeds, not their labels.

On a chilly December morning in 2011, 4 shelter dogs and 8 inmates were brought together to help each other find hope and a 2nd chance. The “2nd Chance Dog Program”, a pilot program administered by Shadow’s Fund in Inmates walking dogs at the sanctuary during trainingpartnership with Santa Barbara County Animal Services and a local prison, pairs shelter dogs with inmates for a 4 month companion and training program. Living on site at the prison, each dog has two inmate handlers that are responsible for their daily feed, care, exercise, and training. The goal is to give dogs who are out of time at the shelter a place to call home for 4 months, and training to help increase their chances of adoption. In exchange, the handlers enjoy the companionship of a dog, learn very tangible skills and have an opportunity to play a direct role in saving a life. In short, the program makes it possible for those at risk of slipping through the cracks to help one another find their way out.

When the inmates arrived at the sanctuary to begin their training for the 2nd Chance program there was an excitement in the air. It’s almost as if everyone knew that this was the start of a new path, the start of something right. Their day began with a workshop focused on energy awareness. The men were taken through a series of exercises designed to help them be more aware of the energy they projected, to learn to quietly observe the world around them and to act from a place of honest awareness about self and others. I know what you’re thinking right now. Sounds like some airy-fairy fluff for people who eat tofu and do yoga, right? Wrong. The work we had them do prepares them to communicate openly and honestly and to be accountable for who and what they are in the world; it teaches them to lead with calm, assertive confidence, rather than dominance or intimidation; it increases their understanding of self and others. It invites them to be balanced, capable and whole human beings.

Bobby practices calm assertive leadership walking a horse

That first day the guys practiced these new skills with the help of some willing horses. After all, if you are successful in working with a 1200 lb animal that doesn’t know or trust you, surely you can handle 50 lbs of “man’s best friend”. They had to use what they’d learned to gain trust and they had to offer leadership that the horse would willingly choose to follow. Too dominant and the horse would flee in fear; too passive and the horse would walk all over them. It had to be right and it had to be real.

Towards the end of the day, each man was given a dog to walk. The results were pretty amazing. Rescued dogs that had little, if any, training walked beautifully – following the calm assertive leadership of their new handlers. This day was meant to set the stage to prepare the men for the task of bonding with, rehabilitating and training a shelter dog over the next 4 months. At the end of the day as they were getting on the bus to head back to the prison, one of the guys took a moment to look me in the eye, shake my hand and thank me for the day. It was “the best morning he’d had in a very long time”. As the bus pulled away I smiled. Gratitude is a positive step towards healing.

It is April now and the 4 months are coming to an end. Watching the dogs grow, gain confidence and become ready for adoption has been a beautiful process to watch unfold. But the dogs didn’t just receive help – they gave something back in return. Bobby, who was paired with timid Ginger, used his quiet, soft nature to help Ginger overcome her fear. But he also had to learn to be assertive and comfortable in asking fellow inmates to give Ginger her space while she learned to overcome her fear. Enrique’s athleticism helped Skye and other dogs in the program drain their excess energy, but the  key to Skye’s success was in engaging him mentally and asserting confident leadership without physical dominance. Mastering this skill was a gift that Skye gave to Enrique.

All of the men gave some part of themselves to help their dogs reach their fullest potential. They understood very acutely that we were entrusting them with a life. They also realized that they could not help the dogs without connecting to them, creating a relationship and investing themselves emotionally. “I have experienced a change in Lucy’s mannerisms because of the bond and trust we have established” shared Dirk. That they were willing to give so much to help another living being says alot about who these men have become, or perhaps who they always were. Jacob working with Honey, a former bait dog learning to trust again, during training at the sanctuary“I was always worried about how others would see me. These dogs don’t see me as a gang member or a criminal. So I don’t need to put up a wall with them. This type of attitude has made me realize that I could do it with people as well” wrote Jacob, who emerged as the natural leader among the group, providing support and guidance when the other handlers needed it.

The dogs also offered companionship. As Larry wrote in his program journal “Ginger filled a void for me . . . she has provided a softer more homey atmosphere to the forelorned, abandoned inmates, some of whom have not been home or seen a dog in 10-15 years”. Adele, who provided JoJo (a nervous and frightened young dog) with comfort and reassurance commented that he came to think of her as “his family, one of his daughters”.

I think what amazed me the most is just how much these men and these dogs had to give, and how it is that those with so much to offer could have ended up where they are . . .

Throughout the program I could not help but wonder how this process would impact the men when they reenter society. Though I am not an expert, I believe that this experience is something positive they will carry with them. Something that might steer them towards better choices and a more fulfilling life.

Bruno, who came to realize the value in what he was doing, wrote that the program made him understand that he could “share his time with rescue places for dogs instead of doing nothing for himself or the poor dogs”.

In the end, the program proved to be beneficial for everyone: for Animal Services, for the prison, for the guys and for the dogs. On a pragmatic level, real and measurable goals were attained. “At a time of increasing prison populations, a significant emphasis is placed on preparing incarcerated individuals for a productive return to society. The prison administration has identified nine key skill sets most inmates lack ranging from academic to life skills to interpersonal relationships.  By targeting skill deficits, the system aims to close the revolving door. The 2nd Chance Program is unique in that it addresses each of the nine skills areas in a positive way” a prison official stated. “We do a disservice to society when inmates release unprepared.  Our goal is to offer programming opportunities to prepare inmates for transition and to return to community life better than when they came to us.”

On a less visible level, something more was gained. Pablo, who has been in prison for 12 years and was overjoyed to have the companionship of a dog said: “I feel that both me and Lucy are better prepared for the road ahead because of our shared experience”. The words “shared experience” really resonated with me. Indeed it was a shared experience. When their paths crossed both Pablo and Lucy were society’s outcasts. Through their relationship with each other they have gained confidence and balance, they have learned to be accountable for their behavior and to make good choices; they gave and received companionship, security and comfort at a time when each was very much alone. They stretched themselves to help another life succeed. This shared experience did much more than prepare them for the road ahead. It gave them hope, value, purpose.

Gratitude, affection, trust, understanding, confidence, purpose, hope. These things may be discussed in books and classrooms, but they are learned – really and truly learned – through experience. In this case, a shared experience between an inmate and a death row dog.

Pete Miller, Shelter Manager at Lompoc Animal Services (and the shelter that Skye and Ginger came from) shared a perspective that I think is profoundly relevant: “We can’t help a person or a dog or do anything good with lasting consequences without sacrifice, loving hearts and sister and brotherhood. If we want to make a little difference in the world, it’s easy enough to do, just do a little good and treat each other with kindness.”

Well said Pete. Perhaps we all have something to learn from this.

The 2nd Chance Program ends this month and it is time for the dogs and the inmates to say goodbye. Hopefully, the work they have done together will truly end in a 2nd chance for all of them. For these dogs, that means finding a permanent home and family. Shadow’s Fund is now accepting applications for the 2nd Chance dogs. Please take a moment to learn more about Ginger, JoJo, Skye and Lucy and contact Shadow’s Fund if you are interested in adopting one of these 2nd chance dogs. 805 735-3165 or info@shadowsfund.org

We would like to extend a special thank you to Angela Adan of Deserving Dogs Rescue and Rehabilitation and Sue Penn of Dogs Gone Good for their generous donation of their time as dog trainers in the 2nd Chance Dog Program.  Thank you also to Cindy Rackley for lending her amazing talents and teaching to help create the right space for true growth and healing to take place.