Paws with a Cause helps prison inmates and the community

Posted at 7:29 PM, Dec 17, 2015

MUSKEGON, Mich. -- Paws with a Cause and the Muskegon Correctional Facility have teamed up to begin a new service dog training program that will allow prisoners to instruct the four-legged pets to sit, stay and simply behave.  On Thursday, the dogs met their new handlers for the first time.

“The guys are excited,” said Mike Hanna, training and quality manager at Paws with a Cause. “The dogs are excited. Sure it’s fun. They give everything that they’ve got to these dogs. It’s wonderful.”

The organization brought 16 dogs, which include a mix of breeds to the facility and immediately paired them with inmates. According to Hanna, the dogs provide a mix of personalities, too.

“We’ve got some that are a little soft and sensitive,” he said. “We got some that are really hard-going. These guys are going to have to earn their keep.”

Earning their keep may be the easy part, considering it was all smiles when the two parties met, according to prison counselor Leeanne VanSlooten.

“Oh, the glow on the prisoners faces, the smiles,”   said VanSlooten. “I feel they were connecting back to society, back to the days when some of them already had dogs.”

The dogs are actually puppies, ranging between  9 and 14 months, and will live with the inmates in their cells for the next four months and become roommates to two inmates.

According to Sherry Burt, warden of Muskegon Correctional Facility, dog beds were made using pillows and blankets. The prisoners had to remove desks from their cells to accommodate the dogs, and they also had to prove they were worthy of keeping them.

“We went through the screening process,” said Burt. “You had to be 12 months misconduct free or you have to have recommendations from staff to participate. So they went through a lot to be a part of this program.”

Muskegon Prison Counselor Robert Howard said they’ve been working on the project for a year. He knows that while the dogs are getting trained they’re also bringing the inmates companionship.

“They haven’t seen a dog, you know, in a decade,” said Howard. “We see dogs every single day. We take that for granted, but the impact that it plays in their life [is] just the simple joy of having a pet.”

After the program the dogs will return to the organization and then go on to assist people with autism, hearing and mobility impairments, and those who suffer from seizures.

“It’s been a nice collaborative effort, “said Hanna. “Not very often you get a real win-win situation. This certainly has been win-win for the Michigan Department of Corrections as well as Paws.”