When Vader, a rambunctious Labrador mix, came to the Iowa City Animal Care and Adoption Center at 9 months old, the dog had little self control. He would tear packages of treats out of staff member’s hands and had to wear a chain leash when he went out, because he would chew through conventional leashes.
But three weeks into a training program that pairs shelter dogs with offenders at the Iowa Medical Classification Center in Coralville, Vader sat patiently, waiting and responding to commands before taking a treat. He has graduated to fabric leashes, and soon he’ll be ready for adoption.
“He was jumping on everyone,” Iowa City Animal Services Supervisor Liz Ford said. “They’re teaching him manners.”
The training program started in January; so far about 20 dogs have worked with offenders at the Coralville prison. The men, who have to apply and interview to be part of the program, learn how to train dogs and are then paired with canines who need more time and attention than shelter staff can give them. The dogs live with the offenders while gaining the skills that will help them get adopted.
“We’re not a really big animal shelter. We’re pulled every direction all day long. We just don’t have the staff to give these dogs the amount of time they need,” Ford said.
Vader was assigned to offender Randy Meyers, whom he stays with constantly; he has a kennel near Meyers’ bed, and Meyers trains him and is helping Vader become a calmer dog.
“It makes you feel good seeing the dog doing good,” Meyers said. “When he came here, he was kind of bouncing off the walls. You could say he was a train wreck, but I say he was more nervous than anything.”
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Captain Kathy Eschen is the staff representative for the program, which started in January and is primarily run by offenders. The program started after prison officials wrote a letter to Iowa City Animal Services asking if there was anything they could do to help the shelter.
“We thought we could help with washing bedding or making pillows,” Eschen said.
When Ford got the letter, however, she jumped at the chance to implement a bigger partnership. It was something she had already been thinking about for a long time.
The benefits for the canines are obvious, she said. One dog who went through the program was emaciated and covered with crate sores when she came to the shelter.
“She was so skinny and so scared,” Ford said. “Bringing her here was one of the best things we could have done for her. She needed to gain weight and trust people.”
Some dogs just need a place outside the shelter to be for a while. One dog, Russ, came from a shelter in Texas that was evacuated during Hurricane Harvey. He was heartworm positive, so needed a place to stay while receiving treatment,
“It’s no fun for a dog to sit in a kennel,” Ford said.
In the future, more such dogs could find a temporary home at the prison. After Hurricane Harvey, the prison went through the process to become a licensed certified kennel through the state of Iowa. If natural disasters strike in the future, they’ll be able to house up to 100 dogs on a temporary basis as an emergency shelter.
In addition to the animal shelter partnership, there are two other dog programs at the prison; a resident dogs program and a program training community service dogs.
The community service dog program started earlier this year after the offenders trained a dog for a Department of Corrections staff member in a wheelchair. They are now training a dog to be a companion for a boy with post-traumatic stress disorder, a dog to work with autistic students at a school and a dog to work with pediatric cancer patients.
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An additional eleven dogs are in the resident dogs program, which started in April, 2016. All were donated to the facility and live there full time. They act as therapy dogs; offenders care for them and take them to interact with residents in the prison hospice wing and in the mental health units.
More than 50 offenders are participating in the programs this month, which are run without state or federal dollars. Iowa City Animal Services provides food and supplies for the shelter dogs, and the resident dogs program is funded by inmates and community sponsors.
It’s not just the dogs who benefit.
“We thought we would be helping them, and in turn they’re helping us,” Eschen said. “The inmates learn responsibility, selflessness, to open up. They have to give up sleep to take the dog outside at 5:30 in the morning, they have to be responsible to feed the dog. The dog comes first ... They learn something can love them unconditionally, without judgment. The dogs don’t know these guys are inmates.”
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