Matanuska-Susitna Borough

Inmates give destitute dogs a chance

Mat-Su | Patty Sullivan | Tuesday, April 18, 2006

PALMER—Alaska inmates are teaching abandoned dogs obedience skills that may ultimately give the down-and-out pets a second chance at life. The program is practiced nationwide, but is the first of its kind in Alaska. It is already giving some inmates a boost in morale. Called SPOT, Shelter Pet Obedience Training, the program is a partnership between the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and the state Department of Corrections. "It's definitely going to decrease the number of potentially adoptable animals that would have to be euthanized," said Chief Animal Care Officer Dave Allison with the MAT-SU Borough. Last year, 517 adult dogs and 32 puppies were euthanized. "I've been in the military and fought for my country, I've been in law enforcement and fought for our communities, I've been a medic saving lives, but the hardest thing is holding an otherwise marvelous animal and having to kill it because no one wants it," Allison said. For inmates, the program gives them a chance to be someone other than their criminal sentence. "It's a good management tool for the institution because it is an incentive for good behavior," said Superintendent Dean Marshal of Hiland Mountain Correctional Center. "It allows inmates to give something back to the community." Ten female inmates at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center in Eagle River are the first to volunteer to train five dogs from the MAT-SU Animal Care shelter. The dogs arrived last week, and inmates took notice. "Gurly" is a female Husky. "Tisha" is a Collie-Shepherd mix. "Maximus" is a Husky. "Bilbo" is a Whippet cross, and "Sammy" a Rottweiler mix. One dog was still emaciated after being abused by its owner. Other dogs were abandoned and simply haven't learned social skills such as not jumping on people. "The intent is to give adult dogs a little extra help with skills that will make them more adoptable," Allison said. The dogs remain with their two inmate trainers for eight to 10 weeks and then are returned to the shelter with a better chance for adoption. An obedience trainer is volunteering her time. Cheri Hagen is a retired assistant superintendent for the Anchorage jail and is also a dog breeder in the MAT-SU. Hagen teaches training skills to inmates every Wednesday. Hiland has a long history of dog handling. The prison is a drop-off point for dogs in the Iditarod. Up to 100 dogs were recently housed in the prison yard, said Amy Rabeau, assistant superintendent at Hiland. It will be the first time, however, that dogs will be housed in the inmates' room in a kennel as part of kennel training. The dogs also get training in the gym or in outside yards. Rabeau said the inmates were carefully screened for the program. Hiland houses only female inmates. Inmates with convictions in child abuse or animal abuse were excluded. She said the majority of women at Hiland are there because of drug and alcohol convictions. "When someone is doing a long sentence, you don't get to do things like pet an animal," Rabeau said. "That's something that some haven't done for years. While we do a lot of give-back projects, this one involves living creatures, so they really enjoy it. One inmate said 'the dog was abused, I was abused. I feel like I can help her,' that's really sweet stuff," Rabeau said. The contract between the Borough and the Department of Corrections has no end date, Allison said. "I only wished we'd have a shortage of adult animals to send them. "For more information, contact Chief Animal Care and Regulation Officer Dave Allison at 745-5343.