Every Monday, Albuquerque art therapist, silk textile weaver, and dog-lover Susan Neal drives 68 miles west to Grants, a small city that’s home to the New Mexico Women’s Correctional Facility. It’s a trek she’s been making since 2007, when she helped launch an innovative program called Heeling Hearts.
While the number of dogs in U.S. shelters is hard to pin down — the ASPCA lumps dogs and cats together in estimating 5 million to 7 million animals land in shelters each year — another stat is easier to pinpoint: the number of people in U.S. prisons. It’s about 2 million — the largest prison population of any country in the world. And increasingly, prisons and shelters have found a way to work together through programs that benefit residents at both: turning stray and often neglected pups at risk for euthanization into well-trained pets ready to be adopted into new homes.
Heeling Hearts is one of hundreds of similar programs nationwide designed to help incarcerated people learn new life skills while saving the lives of thousands of dogs. More than 300 dogs have been adopted through Heeling Hearts alone. (And yes, each and every one of them is as immediately lovable as the little beasties below.)
Until recently, Neal was paid to work with Heeling Hearts through a family services nonprofit in Albuquerque and spent hours counseling program participants each week. Budget cuts and a lack of incoming grant money means she is now limited to volunteering one day a week to provide group support to the 20 participants currently enrolled. Two other weekly volunteers, including a professional dog trainer who has been on board from the very start, round out the lean but passionate team. The Corrections Corporation of America gives $300 a month for dog food, and Heeling Hearts relies on cash and in-kind donations like generous vet care including spaying, neutering, and vaccinating so it can continue to operate. It’s tough going at the moment, says Neal, but she’s committed to seeing the program endures.
Women at the Correctional Facility who wish to be dog handlers need to have a record of clean conduct for six months, and once in the program they must adhere to all prison regulations during the duration of their participation. The dogs live with them until they’re fully trained and adopted –- sometimes this happens within six weeks, while other dogs have called the prison home for as long as a year. Half the dogs in Heeling Hearts live in dormitory style rooms while the other half live with their trainers in individual cells.
“The program just works so well,” says Neal. “It helps women raise their self-esteem, and offers them an opportunity to give back. All of the dog handlers work as a group. They learn to manage conflict and to nurture and care for a life, and they’re on duty 24-7 so they gain a real sense of accountability and responsibility. And they know they can’t break any rules if they want to stay in the program.”
And, of course, the dogs provide the same kind of companionship to their handlers that dogs everywhere provide to millions of people -– a sense of unconditional love and acceptance. It’s one that isn’t often found behind the locked doors of the prison system. The dogs’ presence impacts not just Heeling Hearts’ participants, says Neal, but all of the prison’s 550 or so residents. This video shows some of the women training the dogs:
“When we brought the dogs into the prison the very first time six years ago, the whole environment changed — it immediately became warmer. The inmates who aren’t training the dogs are very interested in them, very fond of them,” she recalls. “The women aren’t allowed to have physical contact with one another, but they can hug a dog!”
Neal says she’s aware that some participants have leveraged the skills they’ve learned in Heeling Hearts into the working world following their release –- one became a dog groomer while another took a job at PetSmart. She points out that the recidivism rate is lower for women who have been involved in dog training programs than for the general population.
As for the canines, programs like Heeling Hearts give them another chance -– perhaps their only one. “All of the dogs come from a local animal shelter in Grants, whch tries hard not to euthanize any animals,” says Neal. “A lot of them were living on reservations. With the economy being bad, a lot of families just can’t afford to keep their dogs.”
It’s a problem pet owners nationwide continue to face, and finding homes for dogs completing prison-training programs isn’t always easy. In the case of Heeling Hearts, prospective owners –- most of whom live a good hour or two away from the prison -– must come to Grants to meet the dogs. They learn about the program through the volunteers’ outreach efforts; Heeling Hearts’ website, where available dogs are featured; and Petfinder, where a local SPCA assists by posting profiles. While the inmates aren’t permitted to take part in these visits, each dog shows up with a heartfelt letter from his or her handler detailing various aspects of training and personality. And most of the people who adopt do so because they believe in the program’s dual mission of dogs and incarcerated women helping one another.
“I just got a sweet, sweet video from a family who adopted a dog three weeks ago,” says Neal. “The two little kids are saying, in unison, ‘thank you, Heeling Hearts, for little Misty!’ I played it several times — it’s just the nicest thing.”
To learn more about prison dog-training programs across North America, check out Prison Dogs, the blog of Sister Pauline Quinn, who started the first prison dog program at the Washington State Correctional Center for Women in 1981.
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