WDAY: The News Leader

Published June 24, 2009, 07:20 AM

ND women prisoners take care of pets

NEW ENGLAND, N.D. (AP) — With wagging tails and lots of energy, five dogs of all shapes and sizes run around in a yard in New England on a Monday afternoon.

By: BETH WISCHMEYER, Associated Press

NEW ENGLAND, N.D. (AP) — With wagging tails and lots of energy, five dogs of all shapes and sizes run around in a yard in New England on a Monday afternoon.

They play ball, play in the sprinklers and get treats from their caretakers. While it sounds like an average scene, the five dogs live inside the fences of a correctional facility and their caretakers are inmates.

As part of a recent cooperative effort between the Dakota Women's Correctional Rehab Center and Oreo's Animal Rescue in Dickinson, dogs awaiting adoption go to inmates within the women's prison, where they are taken care of 24 hours a day.

"We've been talking about it for a few years now, but it just never went any further," said Rachelle Brewer, the prison's treatment services director. "We got our first two dogs in March and it's really been great."

Five dogs live at the prison, four of them temporarily. Frankie, a sheltie mix, was adopted by the facility as a full-time resident.

"Most of the dogs that go there (to the New England prison) are those that we've rescued out of the city pound," said Shelley Quandt, director of Oreo's Animal Rescue. "We bring them up here, evaluate them, get them spayed, neutered, vaccinated and that kind of thing and then we do assess their personalities to see if they'd be good in that type of environment."

During the animals' time in the prison, they are socialized and taught basic commands to make them good matches for homes in the future, she said.

"They become house broke and they get to interact with a lot of other dogs there and people," Quandt said. "It's a really good program; it helps us get them ready for a forever home.

"It gives the girls something positive to be doing with their time and we've sent dogs there that have been somewhat shy and not ready for a home and come out much better socialized knowing more than what they did," Quandt said.

Since the group works only through foster homes, allowing some dogs to stay at prison gives the group time to find homes, she said.

So far, about 10 dogs have gone through the program and have been adopted.

Inmates who want to participate in the program, which can handle up to eight dogs at a time, must first volunteer with Brewer, who selects those inmates with no disciplinary issues.

"We have primaries which are the main caretakers for the dogs. We usually pick those women who have been here between three and six months to be involved with the program," Brewer said. "Then we have alternates which babysit the dogs when the primaries are at work."

Inmates involved with the program are serving time for such charges as probation revocation, unauthorized use of personal I.D. as well as usage of controlled substances.

The dogs sleep in the inmates cells' in kennels.

Gina Hoffner said Tug, a black and white collie mix, is her second dog through the program.

"I'm a dog person," Hoffner said. "I had kids who had dogs, so I've been around them. Tug sits still for me and I groom him sometimes three times a day because he sheds so much. He really likes his tummy rubbed."

Hoffner said she expects to be released around October. She said she'll miss Tug, but will be glad to be going home.

"It's something we can touch and hold and hug and kiss, especially when you're having a bad day," said Angela Bray, the primary caregiver for Lacey, a black Pomeranian. "It's like they know when you're having a bad day and they'll just come over and lay by you or give you a kiss.

"It's definitely been worth it being in the program, it's like having an infant all over again, they rely on you to take care of them," she said.

While the inmates don't have any formal dog obedience training, they do study DVD's with dog behavior specialist Cesar Millan.

"We've hardly had any issues with the dogs and the inmates," Brewer said. "It's a big commitment for them. They really put a lot of work into them and even the girls who don't have the dogs tolerate having them around. The dogs can go just about everywhere, including the library and some of their classes."

Dogs that are kept at the facility stay for varying lengths of times, but the majority stay between two and three months, until they are found homes through Oreo's.

Having the animals around gives inmates a sense of drive and responsibility, said Heather Peck, inmate and primary caregiver for Kimmy, a brown and white spaniel.

"You keep your sense of sanity," Peck said. "It's really pleasant having them around. I'm very strict with her and teach her discipline. I also give her love and she gives it to me in return."

Shawna Voeller said her second time in the New England prison has been different since getting involved with the dog program.

"I left here with I don't know how many write-ups," Voeller said. "This time it's different because you have to maintain certain behavior to be a part of the program. I don't want to lose being in the program."

Parting with the animals can be tough, both on the inmates and the animals, the women agreed.

"They help us and we help them in return," Voeller said. "You really get to know all of them and they all get to know you."