Second Chance Tails
Life comes with no guarantees. Few things are promised to us in this lifetime. Sometimes, the most we can hope for is a “do-over”. A second chance to redeem ourselves. A second chance to gather a little knowledge, store up some confidence and show the world what we’re made of. That is the premise behind Prison Tails, a program born of Mixed Up Mutts.
What began a decade ago when Chris and Sarah Stevens made a visit to Best Friends Animal Society has turned into an animal rescue mission that has the AKC singing their praises. Although Chris and Sarah Stevens didn’t know it at the time of the trip to Best Friends, their “spark was ignited” and saving animals was soon to be their future. A local shelter tried to discourage the pair, telling them that they were “hobbyists and to leave the rescuing to the professionals.” Thankfully, they didn’t listen and instead began their endeavor, Mixed Up Mutts, an animal rescue that in the past ten years in responsible for some two thousand successful adoptions of animals into loving homes!
With Mixed Up Mutts off and running in the spring of 2004 a new idea was conceived. To save dogs that would otherwise be euthanized due to overcrowding at shelters, and aid in the rehabilitation of inmates at the Westville Correctional Facility at the same time. Prison Tails had their first class in October of the same year.
Inmates are given the position of dog handler. Entrance into the program is coveted and the handlers must match a certain criteria. They must have at least 18 months left on their sentence, as the program lasts for one year. They must hold either a GED or diploma; a good conduct record and can have no history of domestic violence or animal abuse. As for the dogs, they are chosen from about eight different shelters that Prison Tails works with. The dogs, chosen with help from the staff of the shelters, are given basic temperament tests and health check ups. If all is clear the dogs are entered into the Prison Tails program. Typically, the program has around 100 dogs enrolled in it during a year’s time and 25-35 dogs at any given time.
A handler is assigned to a dog. An experienced handler may have two or three dogs. The dogs live with the handler 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The handler becomes responsible for everything for the dog, from grooming, to obedience classes and, most importantly love and affection. For some of the handlers this is the first time that they have ever had to be responsible for another living creature or to have unconditional love heaped upon them. It may be the first time in years that they have been able to pet a dog. While teaching the dogs simple commands the handlers are learning valuable life skills that they can in turn take with them to the outside world.
The dogs are in classes for about eight weeks. At the end of the term the dog is graded by the same guidelines that the AKC uses for its aide dogs. They are tested on temperament, obedience, ability to get along with other animals and people. If, the dog passes then he or she is ready for adoption. Families wanting to adopt a dog must fill out an online application and place a deposit down. Families that are approved for adoption then get to go to the facility to meet the dogs. Until the adoption is final the dog continues to live with his handler. At the end of the year in the program a handler becomes certified as a dog trainer and groomer and has new career to enter into upon release. One such veteran handler, Steve, has taken his new skills with him on the outside, and with his credentials in hand is already building a clientele list.
Many handlers say that the chance to give back to society is one of the best parts of the program. Parenting the dogs in this environment is exposing the handlers to a side of themselves that they may not have known existed and teaching them how much patience and love they have to give.
With a mission statement of “people helping pets helping people helping pets” Prison Tails has become an award-wining program. They absorb the total cost of feeding and caring for the dogs, and that includes veterinarian bills. Their goal remains the same as it was in the beginning. Save animals. They have added saving people along the way.
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