Second Chance: Troubled Youth Train Shelter Dogs

Two cute Labradors, Franklin and Daniel, were in desperate need of a loving forever home, but without formal training, the duo had slim chances of being adopted. Aside from not being able to walk on a leash, Daniel would nip at you when he got overexcited. And Franklin...well, the chocolate-coated pooch couldn't even be touched without squealing. 

No one wanted these two precious dogs, but when they came to Wisconsin's Prison Pet Partnership Program, they were suddenly afforded a second chance at life. Inmates trained them within the Washington Corrections Center for Women, and eventually, the dogs built confidence, learned manners, and were successfully placed in loving homes. These dogs not only learned how to improve their behavior through the program, but they also taught the inmates that trained them how to improve theirs.

The Prison Pet Partnership Program rescues dogs from shelters and homes that can no longer take care of them. Prison inmates are then trained to care for the animals and prepare them to become service or therapy dogs and better trained pets.

MORE: 66-Year-Old Grandfather Belly Flops Into Pond, Wrestles 130-Pound Alligator, Saves Beloved Dog

Currently, 14 offenders have been individually assigned to take care of the dogs based on how confident they feel taking on specific animal behavioral issues. Inmates also receive vocational training through a grooming and boarding business they run for the public. The only requirement for employment is that the offenders haven't harmed children, disabled and elderly people, or animals in the past. Once the inmates are released, the Prison Pet Partnership Program helps them transition into the community and provides follow-up support so they stay out of prison.

"I train and nurture these dogs, but they also do the same with me. Sometimes they know what I need more than I do," said a graduate from the program during a graduation speech, who asked to remain nameless. "When my alarm clock goes off in the morning and my dog (or dogs) come to the edge of my bed and lay(s) their head on me, and lick my face, and my cat is curled up next to me, I instantly feel joy in my being and have a smile on my face. I bet a lot of you are thinking about times just like this, but what makes this unique for me...I get to experience this while in prison."  

The Prison Pet Partnership Program is not the only nonprofit that integrates animal training in correctional facilities.

Others, like Safe Humane Chicago's Lifetime Bonds, provide a safe, positive environment for incarcerated teen boys of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice to bond with, socialize and train shelter dogs while working closely with volunteer adult trainers. Once the boys graduate from the three-month-long program, which has a 95 percent completion rate, up to 20 percent of them participate in a paid internship with the Court Case Dogs Program, which finds safe homes for 99 percent of the animals that have been relinquished (voluntarily or by court order) by owners charged with animal cruelty and neglect. Most importantly, 75 percent of the youth do not reoffend within one year of release. 

The first two things Lifetime Bonds teaches the boys is both how to maintain eye contact with the dogs and how to touch then treat the dogs. "We want dogs to learn hands are for good things, not just for hitting," says director Cynthia Bathurst.

Lifetime Bonds graduate Dwaun was afraid of dogs when he started the program. He previously perceived the animals as aggressive and violent. However, after starting classes, he began to empathize with the shelter dogs he worked with: "They feel how people in jails feel.  They don't want to be in cages."

Moved by the fact that he was exposed to so many abandoned dogs, Dwaun wrote a poem about his experience with Lifetime Bonds:

Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice's Supervisor Frank Jones is amazed by the way the incarcerated teens are working with the animals at Lifetime Bonds: "This is one of the few programs we don't need security in." 

"What I've learned from the program is that if we're ever going to help animals, we have to help people too," says City Coordinator Kyla Page.

Ph.D. Lisa Lunghofer, who has worked with Lifetime Bonds as an advisor, says that the program has pursued federal grant opportunities, but hasn't been successful because there's not enough statistical material to prove the effectiveness of the program. 

She told TakePart: "It is critical that we evaluate programs like this so that we can better understand how they work, for whom they work best, and how to replicate them in other settings." 

Lifetime Bonds is currently launching an end-of-year campaign to raise $50,000 by the end of December, so please consider donating.

Across the country in New York, Green Chimneys, a residential treatment program and special education school that exemplifies an animal-integrated program, has a long history of impacting students—since 1947, in fact. Now helping over 200 students, Green Chimneys uses both wildlife and domestic animals in their education on a 750-acre farm, which includes one of the best student gardens in America. 

Children can care for and walk domestic animals, including dogs, goats, horses, and pigs. As for wildlife, Green Chimneys rehabilitates injured animals so the children get to feed and learn about creatures like hawks and owls. 

One female red tail hawk that was recently released after rehabilitation was immediately joined by another hawk when it flew onto a tree branch. 

"When the hawks flew off together, the children got to see that it is possible to reenter the community after rehabilitation, which is a wonderful message for them, since the goal of the program is to return children, as healthy individuals, to their school districts and parents as soon as possible," said Green Chimneys founder, Dr. Samuel B. (Rollo) Ross, to TakePart of the Thanksgiving story.

Founders Sam and Myra Ross pose on front of two horses at their Green Chimneys farm. (Photo: Courtesy Green Chimneys)

Green Chimneys measures its success based on students' attendance, change in behavior, ability to take on reponsibility, pay attention, and, of course, bond with the animals. Rollo says that his students truly take in the lessons Green Chimneys teaches them. "For example, when an animal dies, we teach the children to grieve. When a horse on our farm died, the children decorated his stall. When a teacher of ours passed away, the students, without being told, decorated her classroom." 

He continues: "Children that are mute in our program often want to walk around with our animals. We tell them that we are concerned that if they need help with the animal, they won't be able to express it. When we tell them that, they understand the benefit of speaking."

Janice Triptow, lead trainer at Lifetime Bonds, states, "What's really nice is seeing the transformation of both populations. It's just great to watch two really worthy causes married together."

As more research surfaces about the benefits of pairing animals with humans, we hope that more programs like the Prison Pet Partnership, Lifetime Bonds, and Green Chimneys are founded and funded. 

If you want to become a part of the growing community of supporters and scholars that are making this happen, learn about educational resources and programs available through the Animals and Society Institute and consider volunteering at or donating to each program.

Related Stories on TakePart:

• 66-Year-Old Grandfather Wrestles 130-Pound Alligator, Saves Beloved Dog

• Detroit Dogs Rescues From Burning Building

• In NYC, Dog Abusers May Have to Register Like Sex Offenders

Alessandra Rizzotti is the Associate Features Editor at Good Magazine and a writer for She's been published in Smith, Heeb, and Neave's online magazines and currently runs the Los Angeles storytelling show In Bloom: Stories About Growing Up, Still Growing, Or Never Growing Up At All. Her corgi and three tuxedo cats are too cute for words.   

View Comments (2)