United States: Shelter Dogs And Inmates Reinvent Themselves Together At New Leash On Life USA

Many organizations pair shelter dogs with inmates, often for the purpose of training and socializing the dogs to increase their adoption appeal. What makes New Leash on Life USA unique is its dedication to both the dogs and their handlers. At New Leash, the goal is to keep all participants from re-entering the system — reduce recidivism among the inmates, and find the dogs forever homes.

New Leash has offered programming at Philadelphia Prison System's Alternative and Special Detention center since 2011. Each session lasts 12-weeks and is attended by 12 inmates. The inmates work in teams of two, and each team is assigned a dog. Each team shares a cell block with its dog, and is responsible for the dog's care 24/7.

In addition to socializing, feeding and caring for their dogs, the inmates attend classes in canine obedience training, animal care, life skills and job readiness. The curriculum is demanding, and the inmates rely on each other for support. "We encourage them to work together, support each other, and conduct themselves as they would in a community," explains Norberto 'Rob' Rosa, New Leash's Director of Operations. "That way, when they come out and rejoin the larger society, they're ready."

Canine obedience training classes are led by professional dog trainer Jennifer Green. The participants' expertise in this area is tested at the end of the session — prior to graduation, every dog is expected to pass the AKC's Canine Good Citizen test, which is no easy feat. "Even though it's the dog that's going to get the certificate, these guys want it so bad," says Rosa. "We discuss goals, and this is one of their main goals."

Veterinary technician Laura Muller provides the instruction on animal care. The course covers illnesses that afflict dogs, canine grooming and care, and the negative impacts that dog fighting, animal cruelty, and puppy mills have on the community. With this knowledge, the inmates are well positioned for work in the animal care field, particularly with rescue organizations or animal shelters.

The life skills program addresses the inmates' expectations of and attitudes towards the communities they will re-enter upon release. Through the life skills program, the inmates are provided tools to help them cope with complex family issues, exercise good decision-making and problem solving, be assertive without being demanding, and control their emotions. The inmates also learn about productive ways of building self-esteem, and their positive reinforcement work with the dogs serves as a powerful example. "They feel really good about saving the dog's life," explains Rosa. "A lot of what builds their self-esteem comes from what they're learning when they're training the dogs."

Through the job readiness portion of the curriculum, the inmates learn to utilize computers for professional purposes, create cover letters and resumes, and prepare for interviews — skills necessary for success in today's marketplace. Additionally, stand-out participants are given an opportunity to interview for internships with employers who recruit through New Leash. In the past ten sessions, over 70 internships were offered to New Leash graduates, and 39 of those internships turned into job offers.

New Leash is a young organization, but it's off to an impressive start. New Leash's canine participants — dogs that otherwise would have been euthanized at the shelter — have all passed the AKC's Canine Good Citizen test and found forever homes. What's more, New Leash estimates that the recidivism rate among its graduates is nearly half that of the prison's general population. "The guys succeed in working with the dogs, they get their certificates, and then they want to continue to accomplish," says Rosa. "Most of these guys have started things that were never finished — dropped out of high school, given up on finding employment. The dogs give them the confidence to follow through and to finish what they've started."

New Leash is currently in its 11th session! For more information visit newleashon life-usa.org.

This article originally appeared in The Legal Intelligencer and is republished here with permission from law.com.

Disclaimer: This Alert has been prepared and published for informational purposes only and is not offered, nor should be construed, as legal advice. For more information, please see the firm's full disclaimer.

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