By Jessica Borders
Times West Virginian
Through partnerships with Pruntytown Correctional Center, the Marion County Humane Society and Fairmont State University, paws4people foundation is training service and shelter dogs and impacting lives in the process.
Formed in 1999 and based in North Carolina, paws4people trains service dogs for children with disabilities, veterans and senior citizens. Earlier this year, the organization opened a thrift store in downtown Fairmont at 309 Cleveland Ave. to help raise money for its efforts.
This summer, the foundation began training inmates from Pruntytown Correctional Center in Grafton via Skype and hands-on meetings to work with service dogs and also to handle animals that are part of the shelter-to-pet program with the Marion County Humane Society, said Mark Reynolds, director of operations for West Virginia for paws4people.
The inmates take the service dogs to Fairmont State University for public-acess training, which gets the animals used to sights, sounds and smells in different environments, he said. Most of the service dogs are golden retrievers.
This program of paws4people foundation is called paws4prisons.
“It’s beneficial in a lot of realms because it provides the inmates with another training activity to do,” Reynolds said. “It gives them a different lease on life because they’ve giving back to the community now as well as it helps us to train more service dogs and get them out to more clients.”
He said Pruntytown Correctional Center keeps working with the dogs, and once they are matched with a client, specialized training takes place or the public-access training continues.
The paws4prisons program was already in operation at Lakin Correctional Center, United States Penitentiary Hazelton and other prisons. Reynolds said paws4people anticipates expanding the program into other prisons in the system.
“We have a great working relationship with the Division of Corrections and Fairmont State,” he said. “Dr. (Maria) Rose and Fairmont State have been so gracious as to allow us to do our public-access training up there.”
Debra Minnix, warden of Pruntytown Correctional Center, said a portion of the inmates have the ability to go outside the prison grounds and into public settings. For more than 20 years, Pruntytown has been sending inmates to work on Fairmont State’s grounds, and now inmates are also assigned as dog handlers and take the animals to campus every day.
“Fairmont State University is providing the venue for the socialization here because the campus community is like a small city,” FSU President Rose said in a press release. “With dining, lots of activity, large athletic events, this is a great venue for training for the dogs. FSU already has a partnership with Pruntytown Correctional Center, so it was a natural connection. The university is proud to participate in this program.”
Because the dogs are trained in correctional facilities, they are in a very secluded environment. The animals don’t hear traffic, aren’t around a lot of people, and haven’t encountered some sights and sounds, Minnix said.
She said the inmates’ responsibility is to provide training for the dogs in classrooms, cafeterias and other areas of Fairmont State, as well as in vehicles.
For the shelter-to-pet program, inmates teach basic commands to dogs from the Marion County Humane Society, which are mixed breeds. Once their training is complete, the animals are returned to the shelter with a certification, which should make them more adoptable, Reynolds said.
“It’s been very successful,” he said. “We’ve seen that if we train them in basic commands, the dogs are better suited to be adopted by a potential client.”
The first two dogs in the shelter-to-pet program have already been adopted. An evaluation is done on the dogs before they can participate in the program, and there are no aggressive breeds, Reynolds said.
Pruntytown Correctional Center has worked with the Marion County Humane Society for the past four years. The inmates visit the no-kill shelter periodically to do repairs, said Cathy Reed-Vanata, board member of the humane society.
When Reynolds contacted the humane society to see if it would be interested in partnering with paws4people and the Pruntytown Correctional Center to train dogs, Reed-Vanata knew the program would be a win-win for everyone involved.
“The bond that these men have with these dogs is amazing,” she said. “These inmates connect with these dogs.”
The inmates have successfully improved the behaviorial issues of dogs through their hands-on training. The humane society takes a lot of dogs from animal control, and doesn’t know the history of those creatures, Reed-Vanata said.
But the shelter can tell when dogs have been abused or neglected by former owners, and the Pruntytown inmates are helping the dogs to trust and believe in people again, she said. The inmates are trained to identify the dog’s behaviorial issues and work on those areas.
“It warms your heart,” Reed-Vanata said. “It’s a wonderful program. They have changed the whole lives of our dogs. When the dogs come back, they are so well trained. It was a blessing for us when they came to us.”
Travis Zimmerman, unit manager for Pruntytown Correctional Center, said the facility originally started the dog-training programs with seven inmates, but has increased the number to about 13 and is hoping to expand even more in the future.
They began with four dogs and are currently up to eight — four each for the shelter-to-pet program and the paws4prisons program. For the public-access training, a primary and secondary handler works with each dog, Zimmerman said.
Minnix explained that the inmates apply for the dog-training positions and go through an interview process.
“We’re pretty picky,” she said. “We don’t let just any inmate in the program.”
In the past, some inmates have gone on to work for paws4people after their time in prison.
“The inmates, they’re enjoying it a lot because they’re learning a skill,” Minnix said. said.
The interaction with the dogs is great for the inmates, and the program also gives them an opportunity to help other people and give back to the community.
“It’s about that restorative justice and paying back the community,” she said.
Email Jessica Borders at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @JBordersTWV.