Program Pairing Inmates, Shelter Dogs Helps Incarcerated Girls Work Toward a 2nd Chance

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After establishing its program pairing shelter dogs deemed unadoptable with inmates in several prisons across California, a canine rescue is now working with juvenile inmates.

Marley’s Mutts’ Pawsitive Change program entered James G. Bowles Juvenile Hall in Bakersfield last year, and the teens involved say they already feel their lives’ paths are being reshaped by their new four-legged friends.

Zach Skow, the founder of Marley’s Mutts and creator of the program, says time spent coaching the dogs allows the girls to forget about their past and let go of their pain as they form a new connection.

“When we saw how successful our program in state prison is, we knew had to get to juvenile hall,” Skow said. “Our kids are our future. A lot of these kids are just unfortunate; they come from circumstances and from a way of life that has not treated them well.”

The 10-week program is guided by trainer Samantha Johnson, who also teaches the course to men in correctional facilities. She said the course plays an important role in shifting the focus of criminal justice from punishment to rehabilitation.

“The thing is, everyone is getting out and they’re going to be your neighbor,” she said. “We want them to do well in society, but have to set them up for success.”

One 17-year-old in the program said she’s been in and out of juvenile hall most her childhood. She says her family isn’t involved as much as they could be and doesn’t visit, but the dogs gives her something to work toward.

“The dogs have definitely helped me just because it gives me a reason to be up in the morning, gives me a reason to want do good in here.”

Because they are minors, KTLA is not identifying any of the girls involved.

Another girl in the course, 16, says she’s learned a lot about how her energy can affect those around her.

“Our feelings can really affect what dogs do,” she said. “If we have negative feelings, the dogs feel those too.”

Since it started four years ago, Pawsitive Change has worked with more than 600 prisoners and 250 dogs. But it’s been different working with incarcerated girls, who Johnson said were feisty and didn’t know how to share at the start.

“With the men, they get confidence in a different way but they show it differently,” Johnson said. “But I think with the girls, the biggest difference is their confidence goes up and learn how to work with each other better.”

To be able to continue training dogs, the girls have to be on their best behavior. Skow says when he first started working with them they had a sense of hopelessness, but the program works to instill a message: “You can do anything you want.”

“We believe in you, and we’re going to show you that you deserve to be believed in,” he said.

While the inmates do walk away from the program knowing more about dogs, Skow says that’s not the most important lesson.

“We’re never in here just to teach. We’re in here to love and connect,” he said. “Connection is what life is all about, and with those connections come a softening. You see their guard come down, you see trust. They’ve been through things we could never contemplate.”

The organization would like to expand to boys in juvenile detention next, with the goal of eventually having Pawsitive Change in every California prison. To support the program, which runs entirely on donations, visit their website.

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