Dog-training program prepares pups for new homes, inmates for new lives

From left, Marcia Hilberg reacts after getting a smooch from Indy, June Cotner
From left, Marcia Hilberg reacts after getting a smooch from Indy, June Cotner's lab/Doberman mix, June 6 at the Poulsbo Library. Cotner, an author and Poulsbo resident, took Indy to the library for a presentation about the Freedom Tails program, which pairs dogs with inmate trainers at Stafford Creek Correctional Center in Aberdeen.
— image credit: Richard Walker

POULSBO — Indy, June Cotner’s 13-month-old chocolate lab/Doberman mix, broke character when Marcia Hilberg leaned close to him and patted his head.

She said the word “cookie” — as in, “I’m sorry I don’t have a cookie for you” — prompting a big wet kiss on the cheek from the otherwise calm, well-behaved pup.

Turns out, this dog is quite a charmer. Cotner, a member of the Poulsbo Lions Club, told of working a fund-raising event for the Lions Club. With Miss Poulsbo Natasha Tucker at her side, the donations were steady. “But when Indy joined us, the donations really came in,” Cotner said.

That’s quite a testimony. But Indy’s story is even bigger testimony to the benefits of the program in which he was trained.

Indy was trained by an inmate at Stafford Creek Corrections Center, in a program run by the Aberdeen state prison and North Beach PAWS, or Progressive Animal Welfare Society.

The program is called Freedom Tails, which trains inmates in basic dog-obedience training. Dogs selected for the program live with their inmate trainers for eight weeks, staying with them in their cells and, as they progress in their training, accompanying their inmate trainers to recreation and work.

According to PAWS: The process starts by selecting dogs to participate in the program. Debra Thomas-Blake, a volunteer at Stafford Creek, works with North Beach PAWS to gather dogs from various shelters in Grays Harbor and surrounding counties. “The dogs obtained for the program are usually strays or owner released to the shelters for various reasons,” according to PAWS. “When the dogs arrive at (Stafford Creek), they typically have kennel stress, no manners, and sometimes medical issues. The Freedom Tails program gives them structure in their lives, good grooming, housetraining, medical care, some socialization, and the ability to trust humans again.”

Breeds that have gone through the program recently include a wire-haired terrier mix, a golden retriever mix, a boxer mix, and a Beauceron/Shepherd mix. Here's what one adopter wrote about Duke in January 2010, early in the program: “Duke is doing beautifully. He is getting along well with the other dogs, especially our pointer. I just adore him. His trainers did really great with him — definitely a well-behaved animal. I can't thank you enough for arranging the adoption and being so flexible with everything.”

Cotner said the program has made a big difference in the lives of inmate trainers as well. For some inmates, the relationship with their canine charge is their first exposure to unconditional love. The program gives them a sense of purpose and responsibility, and they receive skills that are useful when they are released.

“The program teaches the (inmate) dog trainers responsibility, compassion and patience,” according to PAWS. “The (inmates) feel good about giving back to the community while utilizing their newfound skills.”

Cotner visited Stafford Creek and inmate trainers. She said one inmate teared up as he told her about Skeeter, a lab he trained; Skeeter came into the program as an owned dog who needed some strong training for a woman with medical special needs. Another prisoner was anti-social and didn’t communicate with others until he became an inmate trainer; his dog helped him break out of his shell.

Cotner said she interviewed Thomas-Blake for a possible future book. Thomas-Blake told her, "A dog's unconditional love, coupled with an offender's responsibility for that dog, accomplishes more in days than man is able to accomplish in years."

The program has been expanded from eight to dogs in one housing unit per class, to 16 dogs in two units.

Dogs are adopted through North Beach PAWS; the $200 fee supports the program, as well as spaying and neutering.

For information about dogs available for adoption, visit North Beach PAWS' website or call (360) 289-4350.

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