A Second Chance
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A Second Chance

The Prison Tails program matches unadoptable dogs with convicted criminals. Meet one graduate who became a hero.

Sara Conroy was looking to adopt a big, active dog -- one that would run five miles a day with her and be gentle and friendly with her kids. But when the Granger, Indiana, substitute teacher saw a cute candidate on petfinder.com, she didn't expect she'd be springing him from a state prison. Kosmo, a Siberian husky mix, had just graduated from Prison Tails, a program where convicts train rescue dogs that have been deemed unadoptable. Kosmo had wound up with that label because he was big, untrained, and a mutt, a bad combo for would-be adoptive families. The overcrowded shelter he'd been in had given him a death sentence -- but Kosmo got a reprieve from a rescue organization called Mixed Up Mutts, which shipped him off to the local penitentiary to learn some manners.

The founders of Mixed Up Mutts, Sarah Stevens, a nurse, and her husband, Cris, a firefighter, created Prison Tails back in 2004, when they realized that some of their rescued dogs were being returned due to behavior problems. They needed to figure out a way to train the animals before placing them with families. But who would whip them into shape? Then they happened to see a TV show that featured a prison-based dog-training program. "We've got prisons right in our area," Sarah said. "I don't know why we couldn't do that." So the group approached the nearby Westville Correctional Facility, in Westville, Indiana, and Prison Tails was born.

Out of the approximately 3,400 inmates at Westville, only 32 make the cut to become dog handlers. Candidates are drawn from the medium- and minimum-security populations and must have a high school diploma or equivalent, good prison conduct, and no background of domestic violence or sexual offenses. Once accepted, handlers have to complete rigorous homework on dog training, write reports, make presentations, and give their dog 15 to 20 minutes of training three to five times a day. On off-hours they are responsible for grooming and feeding the dogs, who live with them. At the end of four to six weeks, the animals must pass an American Kennel Club obedience test and then learn additional etiquette. Handlers get paid $1.25 a day and the program has been very popular, prison officials say.

"Some of these guys have been in here for 20 or 30 years and haven't touched a dog since they arrived," says Sharon Hawk, a prison director who oversees Prison Tails. "Now they live with their 'own' dog who gives them unconditional love and makes them feel productive. Having the animals around also helps improve morale."

The program is more than just a mood booster, though -- it teaches inmates a trade. After they've successfully completed the program, participants become certified animal trainers through the Department of Labor. When they're released from prison they can get jobs in pet stores, veterinary clinics, or doggie daycare centers. "It's exciting to see a dog that's been deemed unadoptable or untrainable become a productive member of society, along with the offender," says Prison Tails program director Regan Dietz, who, with Cris Stevens, teaches the prisoners how to train the animals. "We're giving both the dogs and the handlers a second chance."

Kosmo was three weeks out of Westville when, just after midnight, his new owner, Conroy, 39, woke up to hear him growling. Kosmo sprang from where he'd been sleeping beside her bed and raced into the kitchen. Alone in the house with her 8-year-old daughter, Emilia, and 21-year-old stepdaughter, Amy -- her husband, Tim, was on a business trip -- Conroy had a flash of fear. But the big dog returned to the bedroom shortly afterward and all was quiet. Conroy assumed it had just been Amy grabbing a late-night snack, and she went back to sleep.

In fact, Kosmo had chased off a burglar. When Conroy entered the kitchen the next morning, she noticed that the sliding glass door was open. Her wedding and engagement rings, which she'd taken off and left on the counter while cooking dinner, were both gone. "I don't want to think what could have happened if the burglar had gotten further than the kitchen," Conroy says. "Emilia and I were on the first floor. Without a doubt, Kosmo saved us."

Conroy admits she was uneasy at first when she discovered her potential adoptive dog was being trained at Westville. "I had never been to a prison and there were maximum-security prisoners there. I didn't know what to expect." What she found was love at first sight, she says -- and, as it turns out, peace of mind. In the end, she realized that she really appreciated the fact that Kosmo had been trained by an inmate. "I like that he was being taught by someone who really needed to learn about love and trust," Conroy says. "Kosmo is an irreplaceable part of our family, and it makes me feel good to know that his training was a positive experience for everyone involved."

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, October 2010.

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