New lease on life for canines, inmates through Project Good Dog
WEST BOYLSTON -- When the New England Patriots rallied to win the AFC Championship on Sunday, three rescue dogs were howling alongside low-risk inmates at the Worcester County Jail & House of Correction.
Each of the dogs finds its temporary home inside the jail, where six inmates on work-release participate in Project Good Dog. The program, now in its third year, matches shelter dogs in need of rehabilitation with handlers who are non-violent offenders.
"There's nothing really positive in jail, and they bring something positive," said Shawn Therrien, 28, of Fitchburg. Therrien sat on the floor outside the bunk he shares with a "foster" dog, Abby curled up in his lap. Abby was rescued from a southern state where shelters more commonly euthanize unwanted pets, said Project Good Dog program coordinator Hilary Carlson.
A total of 46 dogs have been rehabilitated through working with inmates to date, Carlson said. While the circumstances that led the dogs to come under the care of Second Chance animal shelter differ -- a dog adopted last year was rescued from a Korean meat market, and another from the island of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria -- they have all helped reduce stress in the jail, several inmates said Monday.
Dan Caruso, 37, of Barre, said he wrote a letter to Carlson asking to become a handler in the program. He was chosen, and said the weeks he has spent working with the dogs have provided an emotional outlet.
"This is really not a loving environment," said Caruso. "Now we're able to express emotions, it's something we really can't do without them."
As Caruso spoke inmate Jason Sabell tossed a ball down a long hallway lit with florescent lights. Sabell said many of the inmates in the low-security setting struggle with addiction.
The dogs, he said, offer support when incarceration is coupled with recovery.
"They kind of become your family," said Sabell. Inside his dorm-style bunk is a crate where the dogs sleep, and a large container of dog food and toys.
After launching three years ago Project Good Dog has expanded to three houses of corrections.
The program is funded through a Petsmart Charities grant, said coordinator Hilary Carlson, who matches the rescue dogs with primary and secondary handlers.
More than 46 dogs have been rehabilitated through the program, and all have been adopted, said Carlson. About 40 percent of them were adopted staff members who "fell in love" with the animals.
Early every morning, Carlson arrives and brings the dogs outside. They spend the rest of the day eating, sleeping and playing, with the inmates, a routine the development manager of Second Chance shelter said prepares them for life after adoption.
"Everybody wants that perfect dog when they walk into the shelter," said Lindsay Doray of Second Chance Animal Shelter in East Brookfield.
Doray said the inmates have one important resource that helps the dogs become social with humans more quickly than they would with a conventional trainer: Time.
Caruso agreed, saying that as with dog training and serving time in jail, tolerance is key.
"You have to have patience, being in here you kind of don't have a choice," said Dan.
Sheriff Lewis Evangelidis said the program has reduced the stress level in the low-security unit.
Guards say they feel safer in the environment, he said, and the inmates, all of whom have earned the opportunity to serve as handlers, change as people.
According to Evangelidis, the program is "stunningly effective in reducing rates of recidivism. Eighteen percent of inmates who participate in Project Good Dog re-offend after release, he said, compared to 50 percent of those who do not.
"You've got a safer environment at the correctional facility, you've got inmates who are changing their lives at the same time and you've got all these dogs getting adopted," he said.